A Sage Reminder

In preparation for my first class at TiP today, I reread a few chapters of Anne Lamott’s fêted writing guidebook, Bird by Bird. As ever, Lamott’s clarity and her down-to-the-quick wisdom floored me. I nearly choked up when I ran across this (darkly funny) passage, one that struck me the first time I read it and does so even harder now:

My Al-Anon friend told me about the frazzled, defeated wife of an alcoholic man who kept passing out on the front lawn in the middle of the night. The wife kept dragging him in before dawn so that the neighbors wouldn’t see him, until finally an old black woman from the South came up to her one day after a meeting and said, ‘Honey? Leave him lay where Jesus flang him.’ And I am slowly, slowly in my work–and even more slowly in real life–learning to do this.

My students and I had been discussing character. We used the Lamott chapter as a springboard for a conversation about what it is to know a fictional personage, how best to tease out their most interesting details and when and how to respect their boundaries, even when those boundaries exist only in our minds. But going over this passage again in solitude reminded me of something different–the value of letting things go. This tendency is indispensable to the writer, though it comes to most of us about as naturally as might underwater banjo lessons (we’re detail-hoarders; it’s our work). I’ve struggled personally over the past several months to accept the uni-directional flow of my life, to take what spiritual baubles I require for survival and to leave the rest, well, where Jesus flang it. It’s been a hard transition to accept, since part of me is still of the opinion that everything (and I’m talking mealworms, here) is important. But in order to craft a compelling character (and in order, I’m convinced, to become one), it’s essential to drop some of those attachments and let other minds grow in the directions they will. We might be amazed at what sprouts.

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Back in the Saddle

In an effort to accomplish some early-summer brain cleansing, I’ve spent the last month giving myself an informal respite from working on any major writing projects. But as I fine-tune my syllabus for TiP and discover that certain chapters of On Becoming a Novelist have begun to call to me with the same inner trill as the saucier passages in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I recognize that it’s time to get back down to it.

So I’m entering the RopeWalk Press 2012 Chapbook Contest with a novella I’ve been abusing on and off since Christmas. Should be a nice kick-start to a more fertile season.

(If you’re looking for incentive to get back to the page, here are some contests with deadlines coming up.)

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…At Least Die Knowing You Were Headed for Shore

“If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”

Our planet lost something essential yesterday. Rest in peace, Ray Bradbury.

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YOUR WEEKLY portrait of the artist

After five days of nearly constant traveling (two houses, three cars, one apartment, an airplane, a moving truck, and a single surreal lunch in a mostly-empty airport), I’ve landed at New College in Sarasota, Florida, where I’ll be teaching a three-week creative writing course under the auspices of Duke TiP.

This greeted me upon my arrival.

The dorm room is nice, very spacious. Per my weirdness, I dragged the desk as close to my window as I possibly could without letting the corner hit my bed…

…which sits about six feet off the ground (stop laughing).

We have a sink-and-mirror setup in the middle of our suite’s hallway (why?).

But all I came here to do was grease-cook!

A trip to Wal-Mart got some breakfasts taken care of.

And so ends a long-ish day. Tired, parched, besmirched with the air’s more-than-ambient humidity, but satisfied. And grateful finally to be able to call someplace (anyplace) home. For the moment, at least.

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Where the Heart Is

The past three days have seen me through at least as many cities. After finally packing up the last of my worldly goods in Bloomington and hefting them onto a 16-foot moving truck (a process made easier by a few gamely members of my MFA cohort), my father and I set out on the journey to Iowa City, where we had to unload all that tethered-down crap into my new apartment—alone. Needless to say, we were exhausted by the time we tumbled onto the tarmac in Ft. Lauderdale, nearly catatonic in the car as my mom battled her phobia of night driving to come and receive us at the airport, to usher us back to my childhood home.

Despite the whirlwind nature of it all (I leave tomorrow morning for Sarasota), being back in Ft. Lauderdale has buoyed me up on a wave of inspiration. Since landing here Saturday, I’ve gotten three story ideas, started two essays, and (oddly) written a slam poem. That’s more creative work than I accomplished during my entire last month in Indiana. I’d chalk this sudden abundance up to coincidence, or to the turbulent nature of this moment in my personal history, if this sort of thing didn’t happen every single time I came home. Really, it’s like some sort of magic trick. I get down here and I just start writing. A bottle uncorked. Presto.

Part of the effect might be psycho-somatic (psycho-creative, psycho-musean, psycho-literary or whatever) since now that I’ve been away from home for nearly a decade, I’ve come to expect these little thrusts in my momentum, to yearn for them with an incantatory sort of hope every time I’m in a plane hovering near FLL. And although I often fear that the spell will somehow break—that I’ll come back and the jug will be empty—it just never works out that way. At home over Christmas, I wrote the novella that ended up becoming the centerpiece of my Iowa application. So what the hell is it about this place that gets the juju flowing so hard, and how can I re-create that vibe elsewhere?

Part of the answer to this question is simple. When I’m at home, my parents take care of me. I don’t have to worry about brewing my own coffee, about making my own meals or taking out my own trash. I don’t have to puzzle about how I’m going to make it to the bank and then to the bookstore and then to the drycleaners and then to the gym before I teach a class at eleven. Logistics disappear, and that’s huge. Virginia Woolf makes a sound argument for this advantage in A Room of One’s Own, and despite the loudly classist overtones of much of that essay, certain aspects of it ring true—being creative sure is easier when one’s thoughts aren’t muddied by concerns of quotidian survival.

But writing at home amounts to more than not having to worry about my heating bill. It’s a return to a place where I’m forced to matter, where remnants of a life I once lived line the halls, fill the cabinets, overpopulate the bookshelves (I’m an only child, so this is doubly true). The people I see every day are the only ones knew who I was when my heels were the size of quarters. It’s an ongoing song of myself.

As ego-driven and nauseous as that sounds—and believe me, I know the self-indulgent when I see it—this exposure to all the detritus of my childhood feels less like a congratulatory slap on the back than a reminder of a continuing obligation, a hovering flicker of promise unfulfilled. When I sit down at the desk I used to type up homework assignments at seventeen, I remember what it felt like to experience those first stirrings of wanting to be a writer, and it reminds me of how far I have to go. I recall how eager the writing process made me in those days, how it felt flecked with the hints of some sexy bohemian future. And while a lot of that speculation was based in myth (writers are always hotter on paper), I’m able to latch on to some of that hopeful sentiment when I’m here. In essence, I can rediscover my joy.

I can’t overstate the efficacy of this manner of positive thinking to the inspirational process. Throwing a little faith in there makes all the difference in the world. And by “faith,” I don’t mean whacko Pollyanna delusion—any author who gets moored in the rhetoric of absolute positivism is on a one-way road to dullness. I just mean having a little confidence in your project. And for me at least, that’s incredibly hard to come by. In the world of the MFA (and in the adult world in general), I find it alarmingly common to balk at myself after getting an eye-watering whiff of reality—“Well, shit,” the voices in my head like to say, “you’ve really made things complicated for yourself, haven’t you? Staking your whole damn life on putting a few letters down in the right order.” These are the nights I sit in horror by the glow of my little computer screen, an awestruck and slightly self-pitying deer in LCD headlights. It’s never very pleasant.

Considered in that half-eaten way, a writing career does seem ludicrous. The time we spend—the money, too—attempting to repair the hobble-legged furniture of our creative impulse never promises any rewards except the satisfaction we choose to get out of the process. It follows, then, that this line of work only makes sense for people who can harness that satisfaction, who can make it a regular part of the job. And when I’m at home, the essence of that joy seeps back to me naturally. It’s always purer than I remember.

So as I prepare to set out on the second leg of my MFA journey, I’m looking for ways to keep that down-home love alive. I hope that the more liberal schedule my life in Iowa will afford me—time to read and exercise, time to meditate and take care of myself—will loosen some of those too-tight bolts in my consciousness, will free me up from the self-doubt that’s plagued me all this year. The company of a fine cohort of peers will keep me alert and inspired (as it already has in Indiana); the landscape will certainly leave nothing to be desired. And though I may have no one to cook for me, no one to lock me up in a plush and memory-filled room of my own, perhaps this reminder of the joys of my process will be enough to keep me keeping on.

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