I ran across an article this past week. Stephen King tells a story about himself and J.K. Rowling.
They were both being interviewed, at different times, and after her interview, she stormed into their shared waiting room. “They don’t understand what we do, do they? They really don’t understand what we do,” with a few profanities sprinkled in, out of frustration, according to King.
King replied, “No, they don’t.”
The irony amused me, because neither King nor Rowling knows what they do, and they have said so. This is not me pontificating like a know-it-all, this time; this is what they have said, in print. No, they don’t know what they are doing. They just do it. They write. They do it over and over. They do it until it feels or sounds or looks like they have hit that thing waiting for discovery.
Over the past two weeks, I reread King’s stunning “On Writing.” It’s a remarkable book, and I’ve never read a King novel, am not a devoted King reader. But if there were only one book that an aspiring writer could choose to read, in a hypothetical universe where the starry-eyed-would-be-writer may take only one book on writing with them on the road to perdition, it’s that one.
I’ve read a lot of books on writing, especially this past year. It’s part of what I do, as someone who works with these strange marks, collects them in words, lines them up in sentences, organizes these sentences into paragraphs, believing that I am strangling meaning from marks, words, sentences, paragraphs.
When it comes to crafting meaning, I believe writing’s soul is best revealed in Brenda Ueland’s “If You Want To Write: A Book About Art, Independence, And Spirit.”
But the work, the psychology, the habit of writing, the muse’s mystery, to which there is no mystery, King conveys with shining skill. When I write shining skill, read: “work.” Because the reason he’s successful is that he writes every day. He writes and writes and writes. And he writes because he loves it. He doesn’t write for the fame or the glory or the money. He writes because, in his words, “I love it. I fucking love it.”
King has never written anything for money. Only for the writing, the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, the story.
And because he loves it, it’s all about writing, revising, writing, revising, listening, writing some more.
It’s all strange, and nobody who does it knows how it works. I say this because that’s what they say. They being the ones who do this thing called writing, the ones who do it really well, the ones who connect to things bigger than us all, and then bring those things to us.
I have these pages here that I’ve been working on relentlessly for weeks now. Hundreds of pages, gutted, because it wasn’t going where it needed to, wasn’t singing.
King says, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings.”
Endless hours, numbing at times.
I sacrificed the children for the greater good. Art. Clarity. Story. Meaning. I’m not certain for what yet, but the darlings are dead. In the age of word processing, there isn’t even a wastebasket full of paper.
But there was a moment after said death squad visits, that I returned to the page, a day or two later, after letting the survivors breathe, and I had no idea know where some of this stuff came from. I know that I didn’t write it, I didn’t recognize a word.
There’s someone running around my apartment who has some skill . . .
Sheets of nearly completed mandalas and almost finished paisley print pictures and bright flower pictures needing more color cover the living area’s floor.
Pens and pencils and scribbled-in journals and half-read books are strewn in exquisite chaos across the rug, in a room lit by candles, scented by incense, serenaded by crickets and frogs and late summer breezes blowing through the doors, a music that will too soon fade into winter’s slumbering silence.
Behind the couch sits the dining table, the boundaries between it and the easel in the corner are indistinguishable, for the flurry of paints and torn art books and brushes and pencils and watercolor pads and tubes of gouache and brightly colored tissue paper create a scene worthy of an artist’s canvas, form and content merging in this cosmos of clutter.
I am less certain that I am creating art than living it. Yet in the heart’s sphere, these beautiful atonal, asymmetric stacks of paper and paint and glitter and colored pencils dance in reverie, disregarding my too critical eye. Because they show my heart finding its way, art emerges in these exquisite stacks of colorful bedlam, an exploration reminiscent of a nebula explosion.
I know at my life’s end, there will be more left undone than done, and I whet my spirit with that dissatisfaction. Until then, I look at what some would call clutter, the maelstrom of a disorganized and unfocused mind, and I see life rise like great art into the evening’s quiet.
When I lived in Cambridge, I had seven large wooden bookcases, stuffed with books.
Mostly philosophy, literature, mythology, poetry, and world religions. And art books. Oversized, gorgeous, collector’s editions. Some I picked up at museums — I had publications from American and European museums — and others I bought simply because I couldn’t resist their beauty.
Some of my favorites were on the Uffizi, Van Gogh, The Louvre, Kandinsky, Leonardo. And Giotto. I loved the volume on Giotto, a magnificent publication that received glowing reviews, for it celebrated the father of the Italian Renaissance in remarkably accurate, color saturated reproductions. The oversized edition had sumptuous fold out plates, and detailed images in which you could see the master’s brush strokes, dabbles, accents, photographic close-ups whose beauty brought me to tears.
When I left Cambridge, in the whirlwind of change and dissolution, I sold or gave away most of my books. I didn’t mind getting rid of my other stuff, but getting rid of the books was something I never imagined I would do.
I remember crying to a friend in the middle of my bankruptcy, pending eviction, moving to the middle of nowhere chaos, “other women have children, and homes, and whatever it is that those women have. I have my books, they represent my life, and I have to get rid of them.” I was blathering as though I had been given a diagnosis of terminal cancer with only weeks left to live.
My victim narrative was in overdrive, my books tethered to something that needed to be excised at the root level.
I can’t tell you how much it pains me to write that, now. How transparently silly and self-indulgent I was being. But as I spoke those words to him, I started realizing that is why the books had to go. I was too heavily invested in an identity that wasn’t working, and I needed to let go so that I could dive into deeper creative waters. I also needed to embrace parts of myself that I had too long-buried, under work and study and self-loathing.
I didn’t know it then. But I do, now.
Getting rid of the books was transformative, because it meant letting go of one identity to embrace another, and I began understanding that all of this dissolution was the destruction before an inevitable creative resurrection. My choices, however radical they may seem on the surface, were an affirmation that I was willing to do what needed to be done to get to where I wanted to go. Which is what I have always done, with a kind of unflinching resolve when my back is against the wall. Ironically, where I wanted to go was exactly why I had all the books: I wanted a bold, creative, meaningful life, full of a spiritual, emotional, and intellectual richness.
“She who would find her life must lose it.”
I was getting rid of the unnecessary to get the meaning that I sought. The books were central to my intellectual search for meaning. But I needed to shift my perception. I was beginning an exploration in which I crafted meaning from the inside out, not the outside in.
For this reason, although I didn’t understand why, once I started getting rid of the books, they couldn’t go fast enough. I packed them up into suitcases, called a cab, loaded the cab with the suitcases, which I then hauled down to the basement of Harvard Bookstore, that is, their used book buying department. Sometimes someone offered to help me get them down the stairs. Sometimes I was on my own lugging a hundred pounds of books down to the basement. Trip after trip after trip, it took several trips a day for days to carry out the heroic task.
I won’t say that it doesn’t still sometimes pain me to realize the tens of thousands of dollars of books that were swept from my life in a matter of days. Other women have children and homes and cars and whatever it is that they have. I had books. And I had an extraordinary library. As I went through my life’s exhaustive hoarding, I appreciated what great taste I had, the breadth and scope and intelligence that I managed to stuff into my collection. Some of civilization’s finest written works, lovingly sitting on my shelves, row by row by row.
I also had a fairly extensive collection of Folio editions, beautifully bound and illustrated classics, that lined several shelves like the kings and queens of the collection. No used books on those shelves, just classics elegantly bound and sitting in embellished slip cases, looking grand and stately.
It was a library that I would have coveted. I had made it mine.
The art books were the last to go, sold to the book store just days before my move. While everything else in my life I let slip through my fingers with relative ease, the art books were precious, for they represented my life’s treasured adventures. They represented not just beauty for its own sake, but visits to some the world’s great museums, that I had managed to tuck into visits here and there. There was a gorgeous, red slip cased, double volume on Van Gogh that I shipped to myself from The Louvre. The complete catalog of Camille Claudel, bought at the Musée Rodin. Catalogs from exhibits that I made the time to visit, Kandinsky, Picasso, Brancusi.
The search for meaning lay most conspicuously in the art books. Travel, adventure, beauty, spiritual longing, stored in two shelves of gorgeous books that circumstance dictate that I leave behind.
It took three cab trips of several suitcases, but they were gone in one day.
The several hundred dollars helped pay for my move.
I don’t have room for books, now, though I have managed to collect a couple of stacks in the art supply littered living area. I ask for a lot of interlibrary loans from our small community library, and I sometimes access the New Hampshire public library’s online system of electronic content.
Our library is right down the road from me. Out my front door, over the river’s bridge, down the road a couple of hundred feet. Our librarian is incredibly helpful, always making sure I get my idiosyncratic requests from larger libraries. She once even went to the trouble of borrowing from a New Hampshire university, though they were somewhat begrudging in filling the request.
The pubic library here is funded mostly through community efforts. This weekend there were bake sales and book sales through the “Friends of the Library.” These events coincided with Old Home Week, a rural fair celebrating the old historical homes in this area. The weekend draws a lot of tourists — there’s a large craft fair held in the elementary school, the library has several events, and both our community store and our library generate a large chunk of their annual income from Old Home Week’s visitors.
I normally don’t attend bake sales or community book sales. I rarely eat sweet baked goods, and I usually doubt that any of the books will be to my liking. But something told me to go to the book sale. I just knew to go. I walked down the street to the library, and on the front lawn stood a large white awning, covering the bake sale and rows and rows of boxes of books. Three smiling women volunteers greeted me. Most of the boxes were of contemporary best-selling fiction, which isn’t my interest.
“Do you have anything that is pretty and colorful, maybe some photography books?” I asked, thinking of my art journals.
“Nonfiction,” the volunteer said, “is in the library, downstairs.”
I walked in, and at the top of the stairs were two boxes of books. On the top of one box was a book bearing Leonardo’s famous angel from “The Virgin Of The Rocks.” The angel got my attention, immediately. I started digging in the box, and there were old art history books. Varying degrees of quality, but lots of books with color plates. Color plates for art journals. I was ecstatic. A book on Giotto. A book on works in The National Gallery. A book on Leonardo. A large color book on the Uffizi. A beautiful small book on The Louvre collections.
“Hey, are these for sale,” I asked.
“No. Those aren’t for sale.”
My heart sank.
“Oh, wait. One box isn’t. Let me look at the other box.” Our librarian walked over. “Yes, the books in that box are for sale.”
I dove in with abandon, “Oh my goddessess,” I sang outloud. Book after book contained plates that could be used in my art journals, a luxury I never would have allowed myself with my other art books, but here they were sitting and waiting for me at the top of the stairs.
Waiting for me, in this box, not even shelved with the other book sale books. Art for my creativity. Not art to sit on a shelf, but images I could use to develop my own voice, my own creativity.
I dug in deeper. “How To Draw A Horse” found its way into my fingers, complete with illustrations and sketching instructions. I smiled from a place of quiet if ebullient joy. “The Year Of The Horse,” my year. My promise of creative adventure. (Search for “The Year Of The Horse,” if interested in reading the backstory. The book was nothing less than Providential.)
There’s a time for simplicity. Then there’s a time to go all in. This was a moment to go all in. Restraint wasn’t called for, this was a time for Blakean excess. “The road of excess,” wrote Blake, “leads to the palace of wisdom.”
Two large stacks of exploitable art books made their way into my grateful arms, for twenty dollars.
I awoke last night drafting this essay in my sleep, going in and out of dreams, remembering my life as it was less than two years ago. For it was about this time in 2012, that I was hauling books to Harvard Book Store, selling my futon and bookcases, giving away porch loads of stuff to The Salvation Army, having no clue about where my life was going. Leaping into the unknown, yet again, with a vague idea of becoming a writer, as though it wasn’t something I didn’t already do, all of the time.
I thought of my beloved art books, and my treasured library. I will have a library again, larger and even more voluptuous in its excesses, I believe. But now is not that time. Now is the time for embracing my voice, with clarity and conviction, and writing about why it was important to abandon other people’s ideas to craft my own.
Perhaps most important, I know with certainty, not the certainty that blinds you, but the knowing that’s been earned from living one extraordinary experience after another, and learning to listen a little better to that inner voice, that there’s always another side to our darkest days, if we let life slip easily through our fingers.
We can get better at it. We may never arrive, but a life well lived means letting life flow through you, instead of reaching for it over and over, grabbing onto something as permanent, then getting upset when it slips through your fingers, as all of life does.
“Other women have . . .” such a powerful reflection of where I was and who I thought myself to be.
Last week, I returned some books at the library, and entered a raffle to support the summer reading program. The volunteer said to me, “Well, if you’re lucky, you will win.”
“I’m one of the luckiest people I know,” I said, with an understanding of how many in the world would look at my life and say “blessed.”
“Well, you’ve made good decisions.”
Yes, I have. And no, I haven’t. I have made disastrous decisions, mucked things up big time in so many ways that I’ve lost count. But that’s not the point. It’s always what you do with yet another inchoate draft, a seemingly irredeemable art journal page, and a major bad decision that gets you closer to where you see yourself headed, if you’re willing to work a little more with it, and then give the mistakes over to imagination and grace. Over and over again.
This is creativity’s essence: the vision to see through failure after failure, blunder after blunder, and let the beauty emerge.
Creativity isn’t economical. Creativity’s full of thousands of pages of wasted words, journal pages decorated in expensive mediums and then covered up by gesso, in the need to start over again. Creativity’s full of excess, as Blake understood, an excess that is as necessary to our creative life as air and water are to our physical life. Formula only takes us so far. This is what religious dogma doesn’t understand, and where science fails when it demands unremitting skepticism. The artist’s adventure, and life’s adventure, is in breaking from the formulas into failure and perseverance.
We may touch mystery in the process, learn more than we ever imagined possible for ourselves.
This morning, I remembered my beloved Giotto art book on the bottom shelf in my living room in Cambridge. It was such an indulgence when I bought it, but I had to have it. The closeups, the thick black lines, the vibrant pinks and blues and greens, the brilliance and passion and tenderness with which Giotto painted. I then remembered my first visit to D. C., and my visit to The National Gallery. I turned the corner, and there was my first Giotto. I didn’t know The National Gallery had a Giotto, but there it was, and I immediately knew it was a Giotto. There was no mistake, the way the infant grasped the Madonna’s hand, the unmistakable break from religious iconography into Renaissance humanism. I gasped, and almost cried. My first Giotto in person.
One day, I will visit Italy, and see the Giotto Saint Francis cycle, I will view his works around the churches in the Italian countryside. But this morning is not that morning. This morning, I took a book on Giotto that I found in a box of old books that inexplicably failed to make it to the shelves for a community book sale, and I lovingly tore out details from one of his great frescoes. I glued the fragments on an art journal page that I’ve been working on, glued them over an extravagance of metallic blues and Caran d’Ache pigments and various lines that I created with a French curve set, obliterating some fine work, so I could cut up Giotto and make his work my work. I gilded the page’s edges, and then I gilded the fragments. I thought how fortunate I am to be living this life, creating this art journal page, listening to the birds, and seeing the sunlight bathe the room.
I am the luckiest person that I know, to be able to document this experience in writing, an entry that could not be written had I not given up a life that was not worth hanging onto, while embracing the uncertainty of the one waiting.
In giving up the Giotto on the shelf, I got the one I could use.
Yesterday I read Brenda Ueland’s classic, “If You Want To Write: A Book About Art, Independence, And Spirit,” and it’s one of the most profound books on art and life that I have ever read. It’s basically an affirmation and exhortation to write until you hit your truths, and keep writing, stripping your writing of all pretense. Write until you hit your authentic voice, from that place deep inside you, and continue mining, without posturing, without worrying about grammar or word choices or style.
I won’t summarize it all here — if you want to read it, if the time is right, you will.
Ueland managed to psychologically untangle me from too many years of academic study in about 2 hours: the actual practice may take longer to be realized.
In my first entry “On Truth,” I discussed my reservations about truth in writing — not just believably framing my life’s shipwreck, but how much of all this revelation is necessary. What Ueland emphasized is the absolute need for the writer to sink into her truth, with reckless, passionate, sloppy abandon. Over and over. Getting it right in clean sentences elegantly hewn is less important than honestly connecting with that thing squirming around inside waiting for discovery. That is writing. That’s the art of writing. So while I questioned the importance of all this truth, Ueland told me yesterday, “just do it.” The writer or artist doesn’t know what that thing is, until they connect to it.
I recently stumbled on a Joan Didion quote, “If I had any access to my own mind, I wouldn’t have had to write.” We don’t know our truth until we connect to it, can’t see it. That’s why I’ve chosen this path. For a consuming need to know and the selfish need to thrive have shaped my life, and my every major decision, including this one: to touch my truth. I may not do it well, but it must be done, no matter the costs.
We don’t arrive at any myth building — for that’s what the writer’s engaged in, building a myth of self and the world, based on everything and everyone that they have taken in, reorganizing it, and creating something new — until we fearlessly throw it all down, struggling with the muse as we push on, while descending into our psyche.
The revelations offered by Ueland resonated with another epiphany I had earlier this week. There’s a great and growing culture of internet policing and thought patrolling that quibbles over every word spoken. It’s numbing and dumbing. What a creative waste. Yes, let’s get this clear, creative genius is the fire and passion and abandon of patrolling what is right and wrong on the internet. Too many of us ceremoniously lambast people for what they say, and then govern how they apologize. None of this smacks of allowing growth or the interchange of ideas that foster a better world. The internet police don’t give people the opportunity to speak their truth, and then revise it as they move along. “Once it’s on the internet, it stays there forever.”
What poppycock. What myopia. What lack of personal freedom we are imposing on each other. We kill creativity, because everyone’s policing and the fear of being wrong, much like higher education, stifles the process of connecting to a deep, inner creative well. Unlike higher education, which at least on the surface practices some freedom, even if deeply political and biased in its practices, the internet is all a twitter (allusion intended) with sound bite criticisms that offer little in substantive reflection. I am one of the worst of the reactionaries and offenders, but I like to think I’ve given myself a little distance, recently. (“The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr is good book on how the internet is changing our brain, and, effectively, dumbing us down.)
What we do when we write is touch a truth buried inside, at that moment. We may not hold to that truth tomorrow. But we must first touch it, connect to it, and reveal it to our own minds.
This is freedom. The ability to make mistakes. “The artist,” I wrote in my journal this morning, “must assert freedom, no matter the controversy — it’s the prophetic vision that keeps us human and alive and the individual in tact.” I’m not entirely certain what I meant by all of that, and it’s certainly ripe for unpacking. For the boldest among us, the artist must assert controversy, because it’s the truest act of freedom, especially when too many seem to be falling prey to policing in the name of the greater good.
And I’ll make another leap, in this brief and uncensored and unrevised entry — the less we censor ourselves, the more likely we will be to touch on the greater truths buried in us. “My truth” may eventually take on resonances of the big truths, the grand human truths, the truths of life that extend to our place in the universe, the deep mythologies that bind us, the experiences that make us all storytellers, make us all geniuses, players on earth who are also just part of an overwhelming cosmos that we’ve yet to comprehend. When we are willing to face the fear of being wrong, and edge our way inward, exposing that flawed human creature making her way on the page, one word at a time, that’s when we’ve connected to truth, however imperfectly.
My landlord moved out about 8 months ago. In getting rid of his unwanted stuff, he offered me an old dictionary, it didn’t even have a binding. “I’m going to throw it away, otherwise,” he said, “but I thought you might like it.” The implication is that geeks and writers like dictionaries, and how could I not love receiving a dictionary. I reluctantly accepted the gift, not having a clue as to what I would do with it. I thought I’d do him the favor of taking it off his hands so that he could get on with his moving, and then secretly trash it at some point.
Besides, people like to give things to other people, especially when it acknowledges that they know a bit about you (“writer” and “dictionary”), it makes them feel good, so I didn’t refuse.
This dictionary is old school, and, as the binding and frontispiece information are missing, I don’t know the publication date. I’m guessing the 1930’s, maybe even 1920’s. It’s almost like an encyclopedia. Weighs no less than 15 pounds, the pages are delightfully fragile and yellowed and tattered. The main body is the dictionary, and the back pages are a trove of those small, detailed antique botanical, zoological, and entomological illustrations. I wonder: who created these unsigned illustrations, artists without a name, selling their meticulous skill without recognition or glory? And who transcribed the illustrations for printing, what hands made sure that these images were properly detailed onto a plate — I assume — for the printing press? Hundreds and hundreds of small illustrations of flora, fauna, animals, fish, insects, butterflies, bats, as much of the natural world as the editors could stuff into a dictionary, given their publication restrictions.
There are also world and U.S. history graphs and charts galore, and tens and tens of pages of historical illustrations and maps, all printed in those beautiful antique fonts and in the stark simplicity of black on yellowed white.
I received this gift before I undertook my art journals, and hadn’t a clue that I would be doing them with pleasure and perseverance. This morning, while puttering between writing and Facebook and feeling sorry for myself because of the mountain of stuff that I seem always to take on, I was thinking about an art journal page that I was working on. It needed something — well, it needed more than something — but I had to take the next step. I had already gessoed over the first attempt, which was an epic disaster. There sat the page, a mess of gesso covered failure, a haunting metaphor for my life if I didn’t do something to the page.
The dictionary. Stuffed in the corner of the front bedroom, the answer came to me from nowhere, “the dictionary.” All these illustrations and maps and graphs and words waiting for me to cut-up, embellish with indigo blue gouache, splatter with black acrylic, line with magenta and pine green washi tape, etch with white watercolor crayon, and layer with the soft velvet of oil pastels. All this stuff waiting for me to lovingly exploit, reworking it into something that makes my day centered, and more hopeful for creating beauty from waste.
The page that was a horrific failure became something better than myself, for it encompassed giving, receiving, and creatively using what might have otherwise been put into the dumpster, without its value being recognized.
And now, someone else’s art silently lives on, having traveled down time’s stream in an old dictionary, and into my art journal.
“I believe the most important single thing beyond discipline and creativity is daring to dare.” — Maya Angelou
I never met Maya Angelou, never hugged her, never kissed each cheek, never told her “thank you” in person. I hoped that I would someday, but knew that I would not, given her fragile health these past years.
Though I never met her, I considered her a mentor. More than a mentor, through her unique love and hope and creativity, she’s helped me believe in myself and my choices.
There was an interview with her that I found on YouTube many years ago, and in it she tells a story. The interviewer asks Angelou about her days working as a prostitute. The interview seems to have been deleted from YouTube, because I haven’t been able to find it for sometime. In lieu of posting that now lost interview, I am liberally paraphrasing Angelou in the following, but the story’s heart and main details remain intact:
“I was at a book signing for [her latest book] and there was a long line, going nearly around the block. It was during the day, and I noticed a girl in the line. She was obviously a working girl. Her nails were long and painted brightly, she had the false eyelashes, bright lipstick, her clothes were a working girl’s clothes, but there she was standing in line, probably after working most of the night, to have me sign her book. I smiled to her when she came to the front of the line. She handed me her book and said softly, ‘you give me hope.’ That’s it, right there. That’s the whole of life. If I gave this one girl hope, I knew I had done well during my life.”
Angelou’s voice broke as she recounted the story, and her eyes teared.
Angelou brightly shone her faith in life and love through selflessness, and, from what I have read and seen, she never buried the working woman’s narrative under shame, or lied about it. Of all the tales she could have told about her years as a prostitute, she chose this simple story of hope. I believe that some of Angelou’s strongest moments as a writer and a human confident in her creativity may have come specifically from her work experience, in which her originality, sexuality, and ability to love deeply were expressed.
Her poem “Phenomenal Woman” seems to me to have emerged from those years, for it is a singularly redemptive expression of self-worth, and the radiant power of the creative self in the world, no matter the world. Though the poem can be read as a black woman’s affirmation of herself against a white class system, I believe the poem touches on deeper themes and realities, and it seems more akin to Whitman’s “Song of Myself” in its spiritual orientation and celebratory grandeur. Whereas Whitman locates his epiphany’s source in nature (“The Leaves Of Grass”), Angelou boldly locates her epiphany in her own being and body. In its deceptively simple swagger, Angelou fearlessly seizes self-splendor, the shining self that we bring to the world, when we’re connected to the mystery in ourselves, the transcended self beyond limits, the self beyond the “I”. Her life’s wounds dictated that Angelou dive into a profound center of love and spiritual luminosity, and spiritual beauty exudes from the poem’s seductive details, a work of singular grace and inimitable style.
Angelou will teach for decades to come, her courage echoing as a celebratory song to those finding their own voices. This past week, bemoaning my proofreading shortcomings in ‘Simplify, Simplify, Simplify,’ Angelou encouraged me to love my writing, embrace it wholeheartedly, and continue confidently, without second guessing myself. For a few hours after my posting my entry, I remembered the following line: “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”
Emerson responded, “Don’t you think one simplify would have sufficed.”
As I go back and scan these entries, I cringe at their tediousness.
Simplicity isn’t making its way on the page.
That’s okay, for now. This entry is an apology, and an acknowledgement that fiction and nonfiction are entirely different animals from expository writing, no matter how lyric and luminous an expository essay may be. For too many years, I earned kudos for my writing, because I mastered the formula and stuck to it. I was like James Patterson, I knew exactly what my audience wanted, and invariably used it: introduce the topic, ask a question, form a hypothesis, succinctly state the thesis, develop an argument paragraph by paragraph, nod to the alternatives, summarize the argument, then give the conclusion, usually in a clever or nearly poetic summary. Wow them.
I did well at that formula. Really well. So well that I created a comfort zone that was impenetrable, as I knew how to work the formula without failing. Much of my adult life was spent hacking out sentences in the wildly exciting craft of revision. Revision, revision, revision. There’s no simple way to an elegant essay, other than revision.
I succeeded in my academic studies, not because I was brilliant, but because I was willing to put in inordinate hours revising. Sentence by sentence, I was a workhorse of wordsmithing. I was also good at close reading, good at synthesizing the seemingly disparate, and good at interpreting metaphors, which when served by the excessive labors of revision, earned me my coveted rewards. I aimed to please, and I knew how to impress my audience of one, my professor, if I could hide behind the work of others, use my handy dandy formula for success, and spend sleepless nights and days revising.
I’ve abandoned that model, to draw from a deeper creative well. Those years gave me extraordinary writing practice, but now I’m dealing with my own voice, my own stories, my own narrative construction. The consequent prose often flounders, struggles to find its way in this new landscape, isn’t always certain of itself, and the excesses of that exploration are repetitive and strained.
A criticism of the blogosphere is that there’s little editing done. I agree. We rarely see our work’s shortcomings without distance, and social media’s immediacy fails to recognize the space needed for writing’s refinement. No matter how much I edit these entries, they aren’t what they should be. They are blog entries. They are cumbersome. They are redundant. They are poorly proofread, that is, with the eyes that wrote them. They are me thinking out loud much of the time, trying to tie big disparate life elements together in a little package, and I have yet to master that creative bent without the expository essay formula.
However, I am doing what my “About” page states I will be doing here, flushing out ideas, honing my voice, and discovering more about this new territory. In this regard, I’ve been successful. More than successful, for these forays have richly informed my evolving narrative choices.
Simplicity is work until it becomes habit, in life and in art. In life, it’s both discipline and awareness, daily choosing what works over what doesn’t, until habits are lived without thinking about them. In writing, simplicity and elegance mean making every word matter. That’s the practice of writing, and the craft of revision. Sometimes, it’s better to throw down as many words as possible, muck around in the ideas, polish the prose as much as time allows, and then move on, having gained experience in what works and what doesn’t.
In an Ira Glass interview that I posted earlier this year, he exhorted writers beginning their career to produce as much as possible. Just produce. Throw it all down. Make the mistakes. Learn. Move on.
In artistic terms, I think that means that the burgeoning writer will be Thoreau like, saying the same thing over and again, when one word would have sufficed.
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I’m not a big fan of the word “truth” — the people I know who cling to it most tightly tend to be dogmatists, and not much engaged with reality’s malleable and imaginative aspects. Truth becomes a function of certainty, the belief that the world exists in a real way, and there are usually prescriptions for how we are to interpret this reality. That seems to me counterproductive at best, functionally delusional at worst.
My assertions may sound strange, especially as I spent a huge chunk of my life studying philosophy, and pursued an equally strange creature called “God,” or enlightenment.
Love, the practice of compassion, the art of forgiving ourselves and the world, is really the only principle — I deliberately write principle and not truth — that exists, and the best we can do is approximate what that principle looks like in the moment. For myself, the best response is usually intuitive, not something that can be predetermined. The other stuff seems to me just the mind doing its thing, and should be regarded as such, the mind doing its thing.
These days, I’m not too enamored of the mind. I am more or less bemused by its convolutions.
As I set down my story, and a series of other stories, I’m pretty appalled at who I’ve been, and at times gobsmacked by who I’ve become. Not because I was such a horrible person, or that I am so demonstrably awesome now. I’m appalled at the self-destructive behaviors and the self-loathing, the amount of unnecessary angst that I carried as a personal truth written in an unalterable understanding of my story, and my self. It was all so warped, a singularly stellar production of my mind. Who I was is now deeply disconcerting and very uncomfortable, the self-love and self-awareness being more constant with time.
Which got me thinking about all the melodrama and shock value that have been emerging from the pages. I find myself wanting to edit who I was, because that person’s perceptions were so unbelievably skewed. I know why she ended up that way, but seeing her play out the things she played out, makes me more than a little nervous.
Not in the specifics, but in the emotional lenses that got her there. My inclination is to give her an eye roll and hit her upside the head, which was precisely the problem, because all she ever wanted from me was a gentle hug and some understanding.
So I have been questioning the issue of transparency, and if all this “truth” is really necessary in my writing.
The issue, of course, is one of courage, not the narrator’s story. I knew when I began seriously thinking about this memoir that I would use a nom de plume, not because of shame, but because I wanted to create a safety zone. I am crafting from memory a character, and though her story’s emotional contours and extensive experiences are framed from my history, I barely recognize her as “me.”
Two anecdotes come to mind while I buckle up and address my reservations about self-revelation, as the girl that I once was emerges from the pages. During my recent writer’s conference, a poet who has recently published a brutally honest memoir stated, “the more specific, the more universal.” That bit of advice sticks to my skin like something resembling “truth,” a principle irrevocable and inalienable. Be specific, don’t elide the details to make the story palpable. Yes, I will be choosing which details to include, to craft a cohesive story, but I must not omit details simply because I don’t like what I see. Or worse, try to capture her in a way that makes sense, because my choices were chaotic. At times, there’s no making sense of that person, because there’s no making sense of a soul driven but lost. Or creative. Or both. That’s part of the story. The good stuff is the stuff that makes me wince, because that’s where something like beauty or transformation or redemption emerge. And that’s the universal, the material that binds us together.
In Buddhism, “the lotus of enlightenment blooms from the substance of the world.” The pond in which the lotus blooms is usually the nastiest mire of gunk. It’s not the fresh water pool of crystalline blue water in which the lotus takes root. No, it’s all mucky, stagnant, and repugnant. The lotus takes root in the mire, and that’s why its a symbol for the awakened soul, the one whose roots have gone down into the world, while blooming above it’s waters.
In Christian theology, it’s called “grace,” and understood in more stark terms: the more sin increases, the more grace increases. I prefer to side with Jesus (“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”) and the Buddhists on sin, rather than Paul. I think of sin as ignorance, not an abstruse theological truth requiring violence for atonement. At-one-ment: a recycled label of belief won’t get you there, a shift in consciousness gets you close.
Which brings me to my second anecdote. I once knew a man who wrote a memoir. Because he was married and had children, he omitted the experiences that would have created a compelling and powerful story. He left out all the extra-curricular sex, the buying of it, the affairs, the phone sex, the experiences that men and women need to hear, from a man’s perspective. He omitted much of what made him human, much of his-story. I understand why he left these details out, in deference to his family. But while his sentences were clean and elegant, the story felt disingenuous. Something was missing. Actually, a lot was missing. “The more specific, the more universal.” The specifics didn’t just fall to the ground, they were ignored. Yet it was all there, waiting to be told, the roots of his craft begging to take root in his life experiences.
As memoirists, we certainly have no truth telling us how to write, or what we must include. Life may at times constrain many narrative decisions. I choose to write a memoir that doesn’t ignore the muddy waters, to shape my story as it comes to me, no matter how much I dislike looking at who that girl was, because I am a writer. As memoirists, we don’t just shape stories, we shape ourselves, and our history. I’m writing my story, and in so doing, owning my life, while creating something that I’d like to call art. In a story’s specificity, we raise ourselves beyond our personal history, and touch those who may choose to pick up our book, read our blog entry, while we go deeper into our own personal truth, which is the only truth that life gives us.
Dani Shapiro once wrote: “I think it may be time for a literary education about what memoir is, and what it isn’t. Memoir is not autobiography. You did not pick up my 1998 memoir ‘Slow Motion’ because I’m an important, influential or even controversial person. You did not pick it up because I am, say, running for office, or just won an Academy Award, or am on Death Row. No. You picked up my book because –– whether you know it or not –– you wanted to read a good story shaped out of a lived life. You wanted to sink into a narrative that redeems chaos and heartache and pain by crafting it into something that makes sense. You wanted to read a memoir.”
Another friend — a man who taught creative writing, and is a published memoirist — exhorted me at length several years ago about art for art’s sake, when I mentioned the word “redemption” in relation to the craft of memoir writing. While I value his opinion, I agree with Dani Shapiro. Life is art, and writing is both life and art. To arbitrarily create boundaries and insist on something like art only for art’s sake seems to me to smack of another “truth,” as though we’ve got Venn Diagram aesthetics. “Art and art therefore art” is a valid syllogism; “art and redemption therefore life” is invalid. Embracing life, art, writing, redemption, and letting go of the labels isn’t just easier, it seems to me closer to the art that humans have enjoyed and shared since we first sat in circles to be entertained: our storytelling ancestors didn’t tell stories in an aesthetic vacuum, they connected us to each other, and the world. My friend’s position seems to me too dogmatic, too much a construction of the mind, although I admit that I’m probably stretching his meaning a bit to make a point.
In the craft of life, I see no reason not to be artful; in being artful, I see no reason not to redeem my life from its ignorance, while putting metaphorical pen to paper, one day at a time.
I choose to write a narrative that isn’t always pretty, but in owning its muddy waters, I may come closer to a life and craft that serenely float on the world’s waters, while fully rooted in its muck and heartache.
(The original version of this was drafted in early March. There is no longer snow on the ground, and ice skating has given way to bicycle riding.)
All we need is music, sweet music,
There’ll be music everywhere
There’ll be swinging, swaying, and records playing,
Dancing in the street. — Martha And The Vandellas
“You’ve never heard ‘Dancing In The Street’,” I asked in a lowered voice with feigned seriousness as though everyone in the world knew something that they did not, while looking into the inquisitive eyes of my friends aged four and six. They became quiet and earnestly shook their heads “no” from side to side.
“Well, we’ll have to change that,” I said with more feigned gravity.
“Meanwhile, let’s pretend like we have music, and let’s go sing and dance in the street.” I smiled at them. Then, as they’ve come to do often in the days since, they took my hands, a small hand clutched my left fingers, a smaller one curled around my right palm, and they led me outside, while asking me the million-and-one ever so important questions that kids ask.
Sarah, the older sister, Jordan, and I left the village store, and went onto the main road to sing and dance under the summer sun’s retreat.
“What do you want to sing?” I asked them.
“I want Oooga Chaka, Oooga Chaka” Jordan yelled, his hand now freed from mine, arms raised above his head, his face glowing in the thrill of this positively wild adventure of dancing and singing on the village’s main road.
So “Hooked On A Feeling” it was for a few minutes — though I’ve yet to figure out how he knew this one, our exotic musical safari taking place well before the song’s recent resurgence. We three slipped into random song and dance, led by the two star performers, in the middle of the street, on the outskirts of civilization, and we danced in the street until the sun went down.
“Hey, Lucy, look at us, we’re dancing in the street!” they laughed and shrieked to one of the locals who passed us, on her way home from the library.
“Indeed you are,” she said, somewhat amused, somewhat perplexed, mostly concerned with something more important.
Now, the above may smack of kitsch embellishment, but it’s a real story. And I believe it’s grounded in a deeper truth than adults allow themselves to live in — similarly, I’ve come to believe that kitsch is undervalued, for related reasons. In those moments late last summer, Sarah and Jordan became my soul friends, friends who remind me of something that need not change, but we seem bound and determined to let experience devour a precious part of ourselves: creative innocence. One of my great joys this past year has been Sarah and Jordan ecstatically squealing my name, and then unquestioningly running into my arms during our chance encounters. For Sarah and Jordan, life is immediate, free, loving, and nearly wholly imaginative.
I made certain that Sarah and Jordan got to sing and dance to Martha and The Vandellas’ “Dancing In The Street” more than a handful of times, from late summer into the autumn. Then one evening, after winter had gripped the air, and several feet of snow covered the ground, I received an email from their mother, Amanda: “Hey, I’m thinking of you. The kids are running around the house singing their versions of ‘Dancing In The Street.’ Been doing it all evening.”
Yesterday, I ran into Amanda and Jordan at the library — Sarah was at ice skating lessons. Jordan saw me, yelled my name, ran to me with his arms wide open, jumped into my arms, laced his legs around me, put his face to mine, puckered his lips, and kept puckering. There we stood, locked for a minute or so, me kissing his face over and over, especially his puckered lips, him laughing and delighting in my unrestrained affection.
I let Jordan slide down to the ground, so that he could throw himself into the snow bank, before making a few snow balls to toss at me.
“So,” I said to Amanda, ” . . . I know the kids have birthdays coming up, and I have a couple of ideas that I want you to see. Not sure if they are age appropriate. There’s a really cute fire truck made of recycled milk jugs on Amazon, but I don’t know if it’s too young for Jordan. Can I send you the link?”
“Oh, that’s sounds very cool,” Amanda smiled, “but you don’t have to get them anything. Just have them over to your house. Really. Just have them over.”
I understood that Amanda was being polite. But later in the evening, I realized that these two friends really do need very little. Amanda wasn’t being polite, she was being descriptive. They don’t need anything, other than a friend who sees the world as they do, in all its imaginative glory. One of their favorite games during the winter was stealing my sweater and playing “catch me” in the store. Grandparents who give them most everything a child could want, but their favorite toy was my sweater; more precisely, my leniency in letting them steal it over and over and over for “I have your sweater, catch me if you can.” They pushed those invisible adult boundaries, and I simply played along. And face painting — using watercolor crayons, we spent an afternoon decorating each others’ faces and hands with fish, rainbows, sunshine, stars, and the indecipherable cryptic ornaments crafted by a four year olds’ fingers. Or combing my hair. They both love to have me sit in a chair and then comb my hair, while taking turns rummaging through my purse and pursuing a relentless q-and-a about its contents.
They still live in the powerful land of make believe, where the boundaries between reality and imagination haven’t been corrupted by the socialization of facts. A tube of gold mascara becomes a magic wand; a Pilates ball becomes a dragon; a living room chair is a fortress; a blue throw rug is a river; a storage closet is a jail cell. (Jordan is obsessed with putting me in jail for littering, despite my protests that I am innocent and my demands for a trial.) Everything is easily transformed for them, and I remember how real and vivid imagination is when we’re young: nearly everything possible can be experienced in that unbound terrain. Little is needed to create a universe — imagination creates the magic entry door, as well as the hills of whatever alternate landscape suits the moment.
There’s so much freedom in a mind that requires little, and demands nothing but its created pleasures. Let the imagination do its thing, and infinite universes emerge.
It’s tragic that we teach kids to need stuff, when lands and worlds already exist for them, invisible realities of greater depth and breadth than anything we can buy them.
Our most precious gift — our imaginative self — is bartered away for banality: Barbie dolls, G. I. Joes, plastic this, manufactured that, or whatever the consolation prize. Slowly, we replace creativity with disposable consumer items, television, and computer games. The imagination isn’t inspired to fill in the gaps with it’s own colors and countries, engage in play that feeds the deepest part of the soul. Unfettered imaginative play feeds us, because imagination speaks to the self that we’re in the process of unfolding, day by day. That’s where the magic of creation resides, for the life lived fully.
Ovid claims that “[i]n our play, we reveal what kind of people we are,” and I’ve come to understand this past year how little adults play. It took me moving from the quintessential land of adults — Cambridge and its oh so important intellectual environs, to see this truth starkly. Adult play is rarely play — most of the time, it looks to me like a series of numbing diversions incapable of nurturing the inner life, the hungriest part of the imaginative self. Play and work become all tangled up in a near psychotic mess that tries to pass for play and life, but more closely resembles an unconscious mishmash screaming “help me, I’m trapped, and I don’t know my way out.”
We stuff the fantasy equivalent of Doritos, Diet Pepsi, and McDonald’s burgers into our psyches 24/7, and then scratch our heads at our collective psychic malaise.
But what if we were really to take to the streets in joyful abandon? What if we really took to the streets, to dance and sing. Gather with friends in happy impromptu gatherings to make music and dance in the street, just as Martha and Vandella’s sang about decades ago?
We need to take our voices back, with courage and without comparison or criticism. Imaginative adventures, for the fun of it, insisting that our responsible adult selves take a time out, banish them to the corner for a few hours, and let the inner child rule the roost for a few hours.
I was at a casual dinner party last week, and it took over ten minutes for a group of ten people who knew each other to open up and really let themselves go, to sing to the “Frozen” title track. Adults, stymied in the privacy of a small group, socialized by years of learning what a dinner party presumably looks like, and apparently firmly convinced about what fun looks like. Most thought singing to a soundtrack was silly, at first. Until they reluctantly joined in. Once they broke free, they actually smiled and laughed and embraced the moment.
The power of freeing the themselves from socialization’s expectations, from the right and the wrong of the way things are, cracked open something deep in this small group. A small and silly foray made them laugh and experience the moment, lighten up and experience life without judgement. It was an impressive moment, one that they won’t forget, I suspect. Small and silly, but powerful and palpable.
There’s a wonderful internet meme that people love posting: “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching.”
My guess is that too many posting that meme don’t actually get off the computer, turn up the music, and dance like nobody is watching. Or better yet, dance in the middle of the street, and not care if anybody is watching. The joy and the unselfconscious experience of playing like a child dancing in the street under a setting summer sun may be the sanest thing we can do as adults.