Writing & creativity


New leaves

I rarely write my journal pages first thing in the morning: there are too many other things to do. On teaching days, I get up, immediately start my kitchen chores, give Bobbi her breakfast, shower and dress, then give Bobbi her insulin right before I head off to campus. On days when I work from home, I sleep later, give Bobbi her breakfast and insulin first thing, and then do my kitchen chores. In either case, “kitchen chores” and “tend diabetic cat” come before “sit down and write,” and I’ve made peace with that. This is the shape of my life these days, and a daily writing practice needs to conform itself to any shape.

Spring green

On mornings when I’m working from home and J has a morning meeting, however, we get up hours earlier than usual, and I meditate then write in my journal before setting foot in the kitchen. When I write my journal pages first thing, I either focus on whatever I did, read, or thought the previous day–a narrative debrief–or I rehearse in writing the tasks of the coming day. When I write my journal pages first thing, in other words, I often don’t have much to say because the day is young: the house is quiet, the neighbors are still asleep, and my notebook and desk feel like the center of a dormant universe.

Honeysuckle leaves

Julia Cameron, whose book The Artist’s Way had a big influence on my life at a time when I was stuck in nearly every way, insists that morning pages be written first thing in the morning, before anything else. (I picture Cameron waking alone in bed, wearing a peignoir and swaddled in satin sheets, her journal on a nearby nightstand so she can scribble pages before her feet touch the floor.) But even before I had a diabetic cat and kitchen chores to tend to, Cameron’s approach never seemed entirely practical: dogs’ bladders take precedent over journal pages, and when I lived at the Zen Center, morning practice came first. Anyone with pets, a spouse, children, or a meditation practice might understandably struggle with Cameron’s insistence that writing in one’s journal take priority over everything else.

Spring leaves

Fortunately, before I’d ever heard of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, I’d already read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Goldberg’s only rule about journal pages is that you keep your hand moving. Goldberg doesn’t care whether you write your journal pages in the morning, noon, or night; she simply urges you to write them quickly and with no mind to mistakes. For years, I shared Goldberg’s fondness for writing in cafes: my first consideration in choosing a new purse was the question “Will my notebook fit inside?” Nowadays, my journal lives at home and I only occasionally write elsewhere, but I long ago internalized Natalie Goldberg’s insistence to write not just early, but often.

Leafing

The beauty of journal pages is that they are, indeed, your own: various practitioners have their own rules and admonitions, but those basically boil down to “just do it.” This morning when I wrote my journal pages, the neighborhood was alive with a predawn chorus: cardinal, titmouse, crow, chickadee, robin, junco, goldfinch, nuthatch, house sparrow, and an occasional emphatic turkey. At one point, the other birds quieted while a white-throated sparrow whistled his clear, simple song: an avian aria I associate with distant alpine environments, too secretive for suburbs. These songs entered my ear then flowed out as ink onto the page: a secret stream of solitude to start the day.

One of these things is not like the others

Whenever I sit down to write and can’t find anything to say, I think of the nursery rhyme about Old Mother Hubbard, who went to give her dog a bone but the cupboard was bare. (Apparently that nursery rhyme has verses beyond the one I know: it sounds like Mother Hubbard’s dog was quite talented.)

Isn't all water "skinny"?

Sometimes when I sit down to write, my mind feels like an empty cabinet…or, more accurately, a messy drawer so crammed with junk, I can’t find much less extricate whatever I’m looking for. Sometimes “nothing to say” means “I have nothing interesting to say,” and sometimes it means “the only interesting things I have are little bits of this and that, and I don’t know how to stitch them together into something worth sharing.”

New Age Drinks?

My inner-artist resonates so deeply with Old Mother Hubbard, a quick search shows I’ve mentioned bare cupboards in seven different blog posts, all of them describing this same experience of sitting down to write and finding nothing. Whatever else might be going on at any given moment, you still have to feed the blog, even if all you have to offer is a handful of crumbs and scraps.

Maybe this all explains why I enjoy grocery shopping, a chore I find doubly satisfying. First, there is the comfort of seeing shelves and cases neatly stocked with wares: abundance in aisles. And then there is the satisfaction of coming home and unpacking one’s purchases: a pantry of plenty.

Notebook-finishing day

Today while writing my almost-daily journal pages, I filled one Moleskine notebook and moved onto the next. Notebook Finishing Day always feels like a special occasion: just by keeping at it, the pages fill.

Snow on the ground, new leaves on the shrubs. #signsofspring

I’m reminded of the story I re-read in Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street this morning: “Four Skinny Trees,” about the four city-planted saplings on Esperanza Cordero’s street. They teach her “how to keep” by sending down “ferocious roots.” These trees, she says, “grown down and grab the earth between their hairy toes and bite the sky with their violent teeth and never quit their anger.” It’s an image that could have been written only by a girl who had watched trees twist and toss their leafy heads in summer storms: a girl like me, or Esperanza, or Cisneros.

Almost spring

The four skinny trees give Esperanza hope when she is “too sad and too skinny to keep keeping, when I am a tiny thing against so many bricks.” The four skinny trees grow “despite concrete,” and so does Esperanza. Like the trees, she “reach[es] and do[es] not forget to reach.” This is how we all keep and keep keeping.

Emergent

I write my journal pages on paper, a product made from trees. This is, I think, part of why I like to write by hand. The touch of the page reminds me of all the trees I’ve known, like the big, branching maple tree in the courtyard of my childhood home, in whose leaves I’d play every fall: one of my closest childhood friends. Every child should have at least one tree–a big branching one, or several smaller skinny ones–to teach her how to stand, how to hold the sky, and how to keep. That last one is the most important: a lesson to last into adulthood.

Spring green

Tree at my window, window tree–why are there so many songs about rainbows, and so many poems about trees? Trees just keep keeping their quintessential tree-ness; there is no running away when you have roots. Day by day, page by page, I keep writing, most days not knowing what I want to say until the words appear under my pen: thoughts about the weather, worries about work, complaints and quibbles. All these are uttered page by page, leaf by leaf: baby leaves becoming big leaves becoming insect-eaten leaves becoming fallen leaves becoming compost. Leaves gathered in bushels and pages contained in books: this is how we keep keeping, “our only reason,” as Cisneros says, “is to be and be.”

The only rule is work

Last year, a friend bought me a poster-sized copy of Sister Corita Kent’s rules for artists, which I promptly posted in my office at school. Although all of Sister Kent’s rules are helpful, my favorite is #7: “The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.”

Wire panther

I don’t consider myself to be a naturally creative person: I don’t write fiction, for example, because I’m not good at dreaming up imaginary worlds. But I’m a naturally curious person, and I’m not afraid to work. A creature of habit, what I lack in creativity, I make up for in sheer stubbornness. Whether or not I have anything to say, I show up at my notebook, and once I set pen to paper, I fill pages out of obligation, having trained myself through long habit to follow Natalie Goldberg’s exhortation to “keep my hand moving.”

Two headed turtle

I suppose some people see creativity as being a delicate, fluttery thing, like a butterfly or hummingbird that flits and flirts according to whim and mood. My muse, on the other hand, is more like an old ox that no longer fights his yoke. Others might follow a muse that is as occasional and enlightening as a shooting star; I follow a muse that plods down predictable paths.

Wire rat

I don’t know what sort of muse visited Sister Corita Kent, but I know this much: I’ve been following the rule of work for years, and it’s the best way I know to create. Perhaps there are writers, artists, and other creatives who can show up only when they feel inspired, but I’m not one of them. My muse requires regular practice even when I don’t feel like writing, and the rule of work points to that truth.

Reggie takes a swim

After taking my time deciding upon a project for the summer, I’ve started to revisit the blog entries I wrote from 2003 until 2006: that is, the years I lived full-time in Keene, New Hampshire, before I met J and moved to Massachusetts.

Water lily

When I first started blogging in December of 2003, my then-husband and I had lived in Keene for a couple months, and blogging was one of the ways I made myself at home in a town that was new to me. Taking pictures and writing about my daily dog-walks helped me find my way both literally and figuratively. When my then-husband and I separated and then divorced in 2004, blogging helped me navigate the alien landscape of my solitary life in a town some 700 miles from my family. During a particularly tenuous time, writing about my life helped me make sense of my life.

Pickerelweed

It’s been more than ten years since my first husband and I divorced, so revisiting the posts I wrote both before and after that event is a strange experience. Some aspects of my life in Keene are still crystal clear, but others have grown foggy with time. I vividly remember the dog-walks I took with Reggie along the Ashuelot River and around Goose Pond, for instance, but it seems like a lifetime ago that I lived alone in an apartment within walking distance of Keene State College. Revisiting the posts I wrote then is like bumping into an old friend on the street: here is a person I was intimately acquainted with, but we’ve lost touch.

Pickerelweed

Ultimately, I’d like to collate these several years’ worth of posts into a single year, just as Henry David Thoreau combined the two years he lived at Walden Pond into the single seasonal cycle recounted in Walden. Just as I love May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude for its clear-eyed account of her life as a writer in Nelson, New Hampshire, I’d like to distill my own experience in Keene into its barest, most essential truths. I moved to Keene as one half of a couple, but I ultimately lived there longer as a single woman than I had as a wife. How is it, I wonder, that solitary souls like Thoreau, Sarton, and myself found our way in our respective hometowns?

Reggie goes wading

As I work on this project, I find myself wondering how people who don’t write–people who don’t have the memory aid of a journal or blog–go about processing their pasts. I don’t have a particularly strong memory, so I rely heavily upon my journal, blog, and photo archives to remind me of where I was and what I was doing last month, last year, or last decade: without this record, I think my life would quickly fade into fog. It’s a psychological truism that we should learn from our mistakes, but to do this, we need to remember and revisit our past actions. If something as life-changing as my own divorce has already started to fade from memory, how can I internalize its lessons? Or do fading memories indicate an experience that has been gradually digested down to the dregs?

I shot the photos illustrating today’s post on a hot day in July, 2005, when Reggie and I went walking at Keene’s Ashuelot River Park.

Float like a butterfly

Some days I rail against the page, reluctant to come to it: antsy. There is no clear reason; I just balk like a spooked and skittish horse.

Yum

Some days the words flow freely. I sit down with a thought in mind, and that thought leads to another and another like a parade of circus elephants, each attached to the next, trunk to tail.

The Saw

Some days each word emerges slowly and with difficulty, like a foot pulled from sludge. Some days each line is a hard-fought battle, the end of the page an impossible destination.

WeMissUBradley

Some days I have something to say; some days nothing. Some days I have something to say but the words won’t come, or they come slowly and with painful effort, each one creeping on crippled feet.

2016

Some days I come to the page empty and exhausted, without a thought in my head, and the words nevertheless appear.

Curly

Some days I write as if I understood this thing called writing, my lines fluid and fluent, flowing. And other days I write as if I know nothing at all, following nothing but the sound of my pen scratching the page.

This is what appeared when I wrote this morning’s journal pages. I guess today is one of those days.

Journal pages

In yesterday’s mail I received the UK edition of Alexander Masters’ A Life Discarded, which I’d ordered online after Steve had mentioned the book on his blog. Masters wrote A Life Discarded after friends gave him a stack of 148 diaries they’d found in a trash bin, and the book recounts his attempt to reconstruct the life of the person who wrote and then discarded the volumes.

Keeping a journal is an immensely personal endeavor, but it is also an inherently egotistical one. You have to be a little bit crazy to think your life is worthy of a faithful day-to-day record. Even if you don’t plan on inflicting your thoughts on an unsuspecting public, as bloggers regularly do, when you set pen to page you make an implicit assumption that your thoughts–your mundane life and the things you believed and felt during that life–are worth jotting down for future reference.

There is, in other words, a hint of egomania in journal-keeping–a step or two beyond merely talking to oneself. And there is a complementary kind of craziness in the urge to read someone else’s journals: the friends of Masters who retrieve the notebooks are more than a little nuts in their belief that a life recorded and then discarded is worth diving into a dumpster to examine.

Shelved Moleskines

I’ve read only the first few pages of Masters’ book, but I’m already sucked and suckered into the mystery. What kind of person faithfully records the mental minutia of their life only to toss that record into the trash? This impulse to record–to scribble down inane thoughts into notebooks that are then carefully numbered and shelved–is obviously one I share, which is why I was eager to buy a UK edition of Masters book, which doesn’t come out here in the States until October. There is something both crazy and compulsive about journal-keeping: it’s an obsession that is but steps away from collecting old newspapers and stockpiling empty tin cans. (Surely it is no accident that the name of my blog contains the word “hoard.”)

But one person’s insanity is another’s art, and I am grateful that the likes of Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Merton, and May Sarton all decided to trust their thoughts as well as their days to the page. When great men and women keep diaries, it is the stuff of history, but when the rest of us do it, there is a hint of pathology: egotism, error, or worse.

Journaling about journaling

Part of what attracts me to the story behind Masters’ book are the layers of obsessive behavior it describes. A nameless woman is obsessive enough to chronicle five decades of her life, strangers are obsessive enough to retrieve her diaries out of the trash, and Masters is obsessive enough to read, research, and write a book about the whole story: obsession stacked upon obsession.

If a stranger were to happen upon the shelves of filled Moleskine notebooks I have dating from 2002 to the present, what would they discover about me? They’d learn my mind often falls into the same predictable ruts, with page after page recounting mundane chores and errands, the litany of an ordinary life. They’d see moments of observational brilliance interspersed with whines about the weather and a catalogue of aches and pains. They’d find, in other words, the kind of stuff pretty much any of us have rattling around in our heads: hopes and disappointments, resolutions and regrets, faults and failures. They’d find nothing at all remarkable, just random bits that are noteworthy only because they are captured and contained.

A journal is like a fossil, preserving one creature at a single moment in time. Pressed between the pages of a journal, you’ll find the faded flowers of someone else’s life, preserved. The journals tossed into a dumpster in Cambridge, England were discarded and then saved, the life they chronicle frozen into prose like a fly in amber.

The first and third photos illustrating today’s post show yesterday’s journal pages, where I wrote a first draft of this post. The second photo shows part of the shelf where I keep my filled Moleskine notebooks.

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