A prose poem, it described my visit on Thanksgiving morning by a group of wild Turkeys, who came down from the mountain behind my home, and hung around under my windows for a couple of hours.
They were magnificent creatures, and their arrival on Thanksgiving under my windows was for me as a mystical experience, for they connected me to things larger and wiser than myself. Their appearance inspired a quick google into Native American legend and lore about these noble birds, and what followed was that I experienced the interconnectedness of land, history, and life’s collective consciousness, a broad, sweeping, and elusive reality.
I felt in awe of these birds who I saw as grand, teachers of a higher order.
As I remembered their visit this past week, I double checked when I wrote the entry. I thought it must have been at least two years ago; two, maybe three.
No, just one.
I find what I have accomplished, learned, and created this past year extraordinary; more precisely, what I’ve made myself available to, and how its shaped me. There’s no will involved, it’s willingness, and it’s a flow. And there’s been more than a year’s worth of life lived these 360 plus days.
Last year, about this time, I was reeling from a broken heart, and the loss of a misguided love who I believed was the one; I had no idea where or how the book’s narrative would take shape, and I was at a loss for its future; and for all of my optimism, I still hadn’t learned to settle into the present moment.
I was still a creature of anxiety.
After countless miles in the mountains (an exaggeration, but a nice turn of phrase), tens of thousands of words (an understatement, because the hours tossed in editing are difficult to acknowledge), a summer of gardening, reconnecting to my visual art, a month-long fast, reading and listening to endless books on writing and self-development, nurturing relationships, hours and days in meditation, and learning to breathe and appreciate in stillness, life has done what it does: grown and proliferated and effortlessly opened itself.
This past week, I thought about my first gardening this past summer. I brought my pots in a month or so ago, and the basil and parsley and cilantro have eked out an existence in the back room, until I can afford a grow light.
The basil sits on the windowsill. It’s leaves turn toward the diminishing sun, struggling for every minute of available light; the oversized tub of parsley that sits on the floor sends out long shoots, reaching for the window, determined to get what it needs, the light of life. The cilantro, less so, because it’s slower grower and in a smaller tub, and its shoots are modest in their aspirations.
It’s an overworked metaphor for the soul, the plant growing in the light, I know. But if you’ve never raised plants from seeds, watched them proliferate under the summer sun, and then seen them struggle for what they need and want, there’s an inevitable lesson: we are here to reach for the light that makes us grow. It’s not metaphysics, it’s what it means to live.
To grow and thrive, we need our soul’s light, water, and fertile soil: and what makes one grow and flourish, may well be toxic to another. This is the beauty of difference. Orchids and parsley and asparagus fern don’t thrive in the same soil, sun, or watering conditions. The conditions we need to flourish aren’t necessarily given to us, it’s our job to create the best circumstances for ourselves with what we have, and through our choices nourish our psyche, spirit, and body, until they work and grow together, day by day, as we turn our faces toward our light, the things that make us open ourselves to life, until we stand like a regal sunflower spreading its petals in late summer.
I’ve learned that life is simple, and thriving is our rightful nature as beings on a soul guided journey: to turn toward what inspires and nurtures, and then grow.
Writing tens of thousands of words has been part of my growth, part of my life’s light, writing until I hit my truths, the things waiting to get out, the discoveries sitting like dormant seeds. As I work on life, the seeds start growing, and they find their way on the page. The relationship between art and life goes back and forth, a loop that eventually dissolves the boundaries between inner realities and outer ones. Eventually, in my mind, the distinction between inner and outer appears only as a convenient myth: everything is connected, and what I have understood as meaningless, isolated fragments wait for me to uncover their meaning and beauty.
They wait to find their place in my story arc, and this unfolding arc shows how one life relates to that great elusive life consciousness: a story connecting the individual to the universal.
In this entry, the waiting discovery planted itself last Thanksgiving morning. The morning marked by the visit of eleven wild Turkeys, who I saw as master teachers, ancient souls visiting under my window, messengers offering me a totem of things to come. “Abundance, fertility, nobility, awareness, connection with Mother earth, ” the animal symbolism website informed me. Did I think a year ago that tens of thousands of words would allow me to discover more about love, life, and growth than I’ve previously known? Did I expect that a summer of gardening and books and art and new relationships would begin nurturing parts waiting to come alive?
No. I have lived more this year than any year before, creating, breathing, exploring, writing tens of thousands of words (in fact, hundreds of thousands), including a prose poem written a year ago, under the morning sun, and prompted by the visit of eleven magnificent creatures whose promises carried more weight than I imagined.
Tens of thousands of words later, a year having passed, and I recognize that I barely comprehend everything for which I should be grateful. So I surrender myself to the feelings that ripple through me and travel into the ether: the joy of being alive and grabbing the scraps of happiness that float around me, catching one, letting it go, catching another, letting it go, hoping that someday I’ll see the big picture better, grabbing scrap by scrap, until the horizon’s filled with nothing but glorious scraps of bright colored tissue paper like happiness .
For I have another belief, one supported by science: as my gratitude grows, it spreads, and these feelings shape an incomprehensibly resilient and achingly fragile world, as water shapes stone.
May you see your meaningful totem, and honor its importance.
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.
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.
the fuzzy stems on cucumber plants, and their massive leaves that grow and grow,
the colors purple and green,
the old blue blanket’s soft velvet nap,
the big red cardinal singing in the lilac tree yesterday,
the smell of cut grass and basil warmed by the afternoon sun,
the scars on my arms,
the holes in my heart,
the split ends that need trimming,
the chipped white porcelain mug filled with green tea,
the sweetness of Super Hit incense,
the candle flame burning next to me,
the rain’s melody,
the brightly decorated card in the mail this past week, reminding me that others think of me more than I often realize.
Thanks for this moment, these few words.
May I disappointment myself less, live deeply, love selflessly, dream boldly, create effortlessly, and give without thought, better than I’ve imagined, for however many days life gives me.
May I be a little more practical and a little less foolish. Or a lot more foolish, with the courage to make foolishness farsighted and wise, even if I never know it. So long as the world is more beautiful when I leave than when I arrived, having recklessly lived my days loving generous and well.
“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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