Writing & creativity


Peeking rose

I’m currently reading Ursula Le Guin’s No Time to Spare, a collection of blog entries from her final years. The editor has sorted these entries into broad categories–aging and writing and cultural trends–interspersed with stories about Le Guin’s cat, Pard. Even with the categories, there is a delightful sense of spontaneity as you turn from one entry to the next. It’s the delight that comes from reading a well-written blog or journal. Whatever you encounter is whatever the writer was thinking or reading on a particular day: a direct insight into the writer’s mind, and the intellectual equivalent of a fisherman’s catch of the day.

Multiflora rose

Sometimes, the thoughts Le Guin shared on her blog are deep, as when she writes about utopian novels or the diminishments of age. But as many times as Le Guin’s random thoughts lead to insightful connections, there are times when a given thought peters out, a seed fallen on rocky soil. Whether the topics Le Guin pursues are profound or mundane, however, they are always fresh, the product of an active and engaged mind.

Those thoughts would have never met a reader’s eye if Le Guin hadn’t set pen to paper or fingertip to key. That’s why the first step to good writing is simply showing up. In order to snag the catch of the day, you first have to cast your line.

Iris

Today I revisited a writing project I’d worked on last summer and then abandoned when the school year started. Over the intervening months, I remembered the various sticking-points I’d struggled with, but in revisiting the actual prose today, I was surprised at how much better it was than I’d remembered: yes, this is a draft with real problems, but it’s also a project with promise.

Spiderwort in bloom

The older I get, the more I find myself repeating the same advice to anyone who asks (and some who don’t). Whether you’re facing a work-in-progress, an abandoned resolution, or an obstacle that seems insurmountable, the same piece of advice is apt: always come back.

Iris in rain

I come by this advice the hard way: namely, by perpetually wandering off. I can’t count the number of times I’ve fallen out of the habit of meditating, fallen out of the habit of writing, fallen out the habit of exercising, flossing, or nearly any other beneficial-but-easily-procrastinated task. Whenever I find myself looking down the barrel of “how long has it been since you did X,” I return to my oft-repeated refrain: just come back.

Beauty Bush (Linnaea amabilis) in bloom

Always come back is a great piece of advice for those of us who are stubborn. Yes, we stubborn folk are easily derailed when we grow bored or frustrated with a given task, but we also are creatures of habit. We will return to tasks we’ve started–and we will keep on returning to those tasks–long after a saner soul would have given up for good.

Begonias

It’s not that stubborn folks aren’t quitters: I consider myself, in fact, to be a serial quitter, not only quitting one thing after another but the same thing repeatedly. But we stubborn folk often return to the things we’ve previously quit, unable to give up the ghost (or our hopes) entirely. Long after anyone else would have declared a project dead or a prospect hopeless, we return again and again to frustrate ourselves just a little bit more and more.

So this summer, again, I’ll be working on the unfinished writing project I failed to finish last summer. As many times as I wander away, I can’t stop myself from always coming back.

Library daffodils

April is National Letter Writing Month, and yesterday I finally wrote a letter to M, with whom I’ve (sporadically) corresponded since November, 2016, when she took a break from social media. I’d last written M in February, soon after we’d gotten Toivo, and her response had been sitting on my desk for months, awaiting a reply.

Spring green

It’s easy to procrastinate letter-writing; on any given day, there are so many other things demanding attention. But it’s wrong to think that jotting off a letter takes a lot of time or requires having much to say. If you keep stamps and stationery on hand, as I do, it doesn’t take long to check in with a quick note, hoping its arrival will brighten the recipient’s day just as her letters have brightened yours.

There is something serendipitous about receiving something handwritten in the mail that isn’t a bill or advertisement. This is, after all, the central premise behind the Postcards to Voters I write: in our always-connected era of email, Tweets, and texts, it feels like a gift to receive a handwritten things that took days to arrive.

I keep M’s letters in a box with my stationery: folded moments of connection to cherish. I don’t know what I’ll do with these saved letters; they aren’t momentous or particularly literary, just the scribblings of two gray ladies exchanging snippets from our everyday lives. This, of course, is precisely why I save these letters: not because they are greatly significant but because they represent a kind of considered care. Years from now when I’m an even grayer lady, I’ll have a box of pretty notecards in yellowed envelopes as a kind of proof that Someone Once Cared Enough to lick an envelope and walk to the mailbox on my behalf.

Spring leaves

As I wrote this latest note to M, I realized my blogging is also a kind of letter-writing, albeit in a different medium. Emily Dickinson described her poems as her “letter to the world, that never wrote to me,” and that describes my blogging as well. When you have a penpal, there is a particular person you imagine walking to her mailbox to find a handwritten note. When you post a blog entry, you have no idea who will receive your words: there are certain readers or commenters you might have in mind, for sure, but your words might find an audience–a receptive one, you hope–in anyone. A blog-post, in other words, is like a letter with no envelope whose address is the entire world.

When I write my Postcards to Voters, I’m mindful that bored or curious postal workers might read them: I’ve followed PostSecret long enough to know that postcards are not an entirely private medium. But just as you cherish the confidence of a trusted penpal, with the unspoken promise that what is mentioned in your letters stays in your letters, I hope my postcards (like my blog posts) will spread a spot of good cheer beyond their intended recipients.

Perhaps I’m as much like Walt Whitman as I am like Emily Dickinson. While Dickinson sent out unsolicited letters, Whitman sent out lines like spider-silk, an ephemeral and even invisible medium in perpetual search of connection.

Graffiti alley

Today I wrote in my journal after too much time doing everything but writing: a lacuna of days. I’ve been faithfully writing in a five-year diary–just a few lines describing each day’s routine–but I’ve been too long away from my actual journal, subsumed with other things.

Pink heart

When I don’t write in my journal, my fountain pen dries up and so does my creativity. I miss simple things like paying attention to a robin clucking outside the window as the day deepens to dusk and the dog lies sleeping on a pile of pillows. One day, I tell myself, I’ll cherish this scribbled record of ordinary days; I’ll look back in curious wonder at this strange person I used to call “me.”

Mulxer

This morning I gave interviews at the Zen Center. Although I’ve been meditating regularly at home, I’ve been too long away from formal practice: another lacuna. But no matter how far you wander from your practice or the page, there they are waiting for you when you return.

Blue hair

I miss the predictable informality of daily blogging. Facebook and Flickr have become the places I post my daily jots and titles, which occasional overlap onto Instagram and Twitter. My blog has become by default a repository for longer, more methodical essays–the place I post when I have Something To Say, which means days and weeks go by between entries.

Miami

In my early blogging days, I didn’t let a perceived lack of inspiration stop me from posting. Instead, I showed up and started speaking even before I knew what would come out. In those early, more innocent days, I often found I did indeed have something to say, but I discovered that something only in the process of saying it. Leap and the net will appear, or build it and they will come.

Spread love

I’d like to get back to that routine, spontaneous commitment to show up and see what happens. It’s a habit that has served me well for some fourteen years; I’d be sorry to wander too far from it.

Nest-like

Last week, sci-fi and fantasy author Ursula Le Guin died at the age of 88. Although Le Guin is best known as a novelist, I remember her most fondly for her quirky essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.”

Pottery and textile

Like Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” Le Guin’s “Carrier Bag” is an essay about women’s fiction that is itself a kind of fiction. “Carrier Bag” is an essay, but it offers a narrative of how women’s writing evolved. In telling that narrative, Le Guin muses upon characters who appear as if by accident from an impromptu stream-of-consciousness reflection that would be entirely innocuous if it weren’t for its edge.

Woven

Le Guin suggests that male literature tells stories of swords, spears, and sticks: phallic weapons that make a point by focusing on heroic tales of conflict and conquest. Women’s stories, on the other hand, are like bags. They are capacious, inclusive, and eclectic: a narrative assortment of jots and tittles gleaned from random gathering rather than targeted hunting.

Folded paper

Carrier-bag tales are a compendium of ordinaries. Hunters and warriors need to work in solemn silence in order to focus on their heroic quest, but gatherers are the original multi-taskers. Long before men fashioned sticks into spears, Le Guin suggests women fashioned animal skins into slings for carrying infants, gathered food items, and all the random stuff that civilization depends on. (Anyone with an infant knows the most important invention of all time is the diaper bag, rivaled only, perhaps, by the miraculous repository known as “your wife’s purse.”)

Pottery and textile

Gathering nuts and berries is a social endeavor–there’s plenty of time for gossip and small talk while many hands make light work. While filling their carrier-bags with fruit, nuts, and berries, women shared stories to entertain themselves and their children, with all of this chattering happening amidst the constant interruptions of inquisitive toddlers, adventurous youngsters, and fussy babies.

Intricacies

When I read Le Guin’s “Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” I’m reminded of my blog. Hoarded Ordinaries isn’t especially heroic, it doesn’t have anything remotely resembling a point or plot, and it certainly qualifies as a ragtag collection of mundane minutiae: a proverbial mixed bag. So why bother to keep a carrier-bag account of my ordinary life? Because like countless women before me, I’m a social rather than heroic creature. Having gathered my own humble bag of pretty flowers and shiny stones, I want nothing more than to share.

Face and spray can

Sometimes when I’m bored or feeling uninspired, I’ll page back through my journal to see what I was doing, thinking, or worrying about at a given time in the past. If nothing else, this practice is a great way of cultivating perspective, as I frequently find that something I was completely consumed by even a few months ago is now entirely forgotten and irrelevant.

Modica Way

Last September, I read (and blogged about) David Sedaris’ Theft By Finding, a lightly-edited collection of journal entries from the years 1977 to 2002, and today I rediscovered an observation I’d written in my journal while I was reading the book:

Red

I’m realizing as I read that there are two kinds of journal-keepers: thinkers and recorders. Thinkers write long, sustained entries on a given topics–informal essays on whatever deep thoughts they’re having. Recorders, on the other hand, keep a spontaneous list of whatever thoughts pop into mind as they are writing, jumping from subject to subject as their minds themselves wander.

Modica Way

Thoreau was a thinker, as am I: any given entry sounds like the rough draft of an essay. But equally intriguing is the spontaneous stream-of-consciousness produced by recorders–and Sedaris falls in this category. One minute he notes the cost of eggs at a given diner or the cost of milk at Winn-Dixie, then the next he recounts what drugs he and his sister took on the beach or the slurs passengers in a passing car shouted while pelting him with rocks.

Escape

Readers appreciate the profundity of thinkers, but they are sometimes put off by the sheer randomness of recorder-style journals. When a writer simply records his or her thoughts as they occur, it’s sometimes difficult for readers to tell how important any given item or event truly is. Is the price of gas as important as a pending real estate deal or argument with a friend?

Ghost

What non-writers might not appreciate, however, is the importance of objectivity and impartiality in writing. Most folks would be outraged by an argument or insult, but recorders cultivate a curious kind of equanimity. Viewing everything as grist for the mill allows a recorder to keep a nonchalant account of everything happening in their life. There’s no need to judge or justify what you did, what you saw, or what you thought; just write it down. What results is a refreshingly real depiction of a person’s mind, without censorship or prudery. Over the course of letting oneself think on paper, a recorder develops a sincere and fearless style. Nothing is held back because nothing is shunned.

Modica Way

Theft By Finding is at times wickedly funny, but not because Sedaris is trying to be funny. Instead, the book is funny because Sedaris is entirely deadpan in his account of absurd behavior. The down-and-out people he encounters in Chicago and Raleigh behave in absurd and ridiculous ways, and he reports what they say and what they do in a nonchalant tone as if there is nothing remarkable or disturbing about it.

Spray paint

There are plenty of people who say they’ve seen enough crazy shit to fill a book, but they don’t ever actually write that shit down. David Sedaris is wickedly funny because he simply records the absurd things he sees and overhears without judgement. The stories and scraps of stories he records speak for themselves, without the need for commentary or critique.

Six word memoirs

This past Friday was the National Day on Writing, and for the first time, Framingham State hosted an event sponsored by the English Department and the Center for Academic Success and Achievement (CASA). Among the day’s activities was a six-word memoir wall where students, faculty, and staff posted colorful sticky-notes telling the (brief) stories of their lives.

More memoirs

Capturing your life in six words sounds difficult, but it’s fun and even addictive once you try it. (You can read some examples here.) On the first day of my American Short Story class each semester, I tell students the apocryphal legend of Ernest Hemingway’s shortest story: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” We debate the larger story behind these words: who placed the ad, why were the shoes never worn, and is the baby who should have worn them alive, dead, or never born?

The best people are English majors

It turns out you can say a lot in only a few words, and every semester my students and I try our hands at writing our own six-word memoirs. If you had only six words to share your life story with strangers, which six words would you choose? A six-word version of my story I often share with students is “Went to college, never came home,” but other six-word accounts of my life are equally accurate, like “Still writing after all these years.”

From today's National Day on Writing event. #WhyIWrite

At Friday’s event, we also asked students, faculty, and anyone passing by to pose with one of our #WhyIWrite whiteboards. Just as everyone has a life story to tell, everyone has their own reasons for writing. (You can see some of them here.) Some of us write to understand our lives, some of us write to escape them, and some of us write to share our experience. Some of us struggle to explain exactly why we write; we just know it will take far more than six words to say.

Next Page »