Random Thoughts On Writing, Part II

“A word after a word is power.”  —  Margaret Atwood

Last Sunday, I completed a proposal, after a marathon of writing and editing.

I began my last editing go-around about 7 a.m., and apart from a couple of small mindless meals, a bath, a meditation, and then a brief nap in the early evening, these to clear my mind, in service to the proposal, I worked until about 11 p.m.

I don’t remember living that day.  I remember only sentence fragments running through my head, the cursor’s movements, and the endless revising until an idea was clear and well phrased.

This was just the last day, the last sixteen hours to get it in.  The days and weeks spent before, I haven’t a clue how many weeks I invested.

Here’s what I find amusing: I am certain this proposal won’t land a deal.

I am not undermining my work.  There were moments of stunning writing, and I reached an important goal: I am proud of this submission, gave it everything I had, and a little more.  I found themes, made connections, and the contours of something larger than I imagined emerged.  Creatively, I hit good notes, and I’ve catapulted myself into a better space, more confident, more focused, clearer about where I am going and what I need to do next.

Artistically, there were images, word choices, sentences that flew off the page from imagination’s ether in the way that writer’s hope to get, every so often.

But for its many strengths, I don’t believe this publisher will buy it.  Wrong story, wrong publisher.  I’m okay with that; I don’t want to bend my words into something not true.

I’m happy with whatever happens, and I don’t take that state of grace for granted.

I submitted the proposal electronically a little before midnight.  My mind and body fatigued by the work, and the feeling of failure, no matter how good a sentence or two may look after the fact, was overwhelming: when your audience isn’t present, the vacuum of uncertainty opens wide.  No applause.  No encore.  Just silence.  And you can love your darlings, briefly think them the most glorious creatures ever born, but the little darlings are more work than anyone can possibly imagine.  There’s an inevitable failure fatigue that comes after weeks of work, hundreds of gutted pages, and then the sixteen hour marathon, knowing that this isn’t the one, but you learned what you needed to.

There was something else I learned in the past weeks, or felt deeply for the first time: the writer’s vocation is nothing more than the most sacred sanctuary of their life.  It’s requirements are no less than those of marriage, parenthood, or priest: and like any of these relationships, to spouse, children, “God,” there are moments of indescribable joy and satisfaction, and moments of sheer emptiness and frustration.

But the commitment is worth it, for until the heart finds a thing that it loves more than itself, a place that banishes the ego’s pettiness and myopia, the heart will never soar as it was born to.

It is the quest of finding our deepest human self, and running with it until there’s no more.  Whatever that thing is, whatever it is that wants to make us die empty, and leave something in and for the world that says, “I was here.”  Running, writing, music, painting, teaching, gardening, whatever that thing that makes us loose sixteen hours effortlessly, while working ferociously.

So J. K. Rowling’s words struck me differently after Sunday, having just completed a fresh marathon of writing.  I’ve done writing marathons before, but this one was new, involved several layers of creative engagement, and comes with a renewed relationship to my craft.  Sixteen hours of nothing but words on a page, and not even realizing that it was sixteen hours, lost as I was in the words, sentences, paragraphs, story.

Readers rarely understand what writers do, the commitment to sitting only with one’s self behind the screen, or with a paper and pen.  It’s one thing to parent, it’s another to parent well.  It’s one thing to marry, it’s another to share life and love and laughter well, for a very long time.  It’s one thing to receive ordination, it’s another to serve well and selflessly.

It’s one thing to write, it’s another to aspire to write well, with everything in you, and create something from the heart and mind, a landscape of unknown design whose revelation comes one word at a time.

“They really don’t understand what we do.”

No, they don’t.

On Truth, Part II

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.