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.

Snowy magnolia

We’re at the point of the semester when I have little time to write: right now my paper-piles loom large, and there are emails to answer and classes to prep. My colleagues are similarly stressed–the typical college semester is emotionally grueling for both faculty and students alike–and while I know I’ll catch up with my grading and other teaching tasks eventually, I lament every moment of lost writing time.

Snow on forsythia

During busy times when I don’t have much time to write, I grow anxious and unsettled, fretting like a dog separated from her pups. Writing isn’t simply a job or pastime for me: it’s how I process my inner world. When I’m not writing, I’m not taking time to make sense of my life: writing even more than meditation is the keel that keeps me upright and centered.

These days when I do find time to show up at my notebook, I come to the page feeling scattered and disjointed: uninspired. After even a few days away from my journal, I’m rusty when I return, having forgotten the route a feeble, circuitous thought takes from brain to hand then onto the page.

Winter into spring

What works, I know, is to write everyday. When I’m writing regularly, my thoughts flow automatically onto the page, my writing hand serving like an extension of my brain and my pen another finger. When I’m writing regularly, filling pages is no problem, even when I think I don’t have anything to say. When I sit and place pen to paper, the words simply appear: the secret to writing, I’ve discovered, is simply to be there with pen in hand, ready for whatever appears.

There’s an old Zen story about a young orphan living in a lonely monastery. An old monk tells the boy that if he sits in front of a certain shoji screen, an ox will eventually appear. The initial admonition to wait for the ox is a trick to keep an antsy boy occupied, like telling a child to sprinkle salt on a bird’s tail. But after the boy sits a long and faithful vigil, an ox does indeed arrive, leaping through the screen and astonishing both the boy and elderly monk alike.

Snow magnolia

Writing journal pages is a bit like sitting in front of a shoji screen, waiting. For months on end, you see nothing inspiring; instead, you face an expanse of blank paper that seems as impenetrable as any brick wall. But one day when you’ve nearly given up all hope, the ox of inspiration charges through the paper and carries you away, amazed. You never know in advance when this moment will come, and this is why you spend many lonely hours with eyes open and pen in hand, waiting for the words appear.

The week before classes start

It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks, without much time to process all that’s been happening. A few weeks ago, I accepted a last-minute one-year appointment as an assistant professor at Framingham State, so I’ve been in the curious scenario of being “new” faculty at an institution where I’ve been teaching part-time since 2012. Right as I was navigating the day-long orientations, benefits-related paperwork, and last-minute schedule changes this surprise appointment necessitated, our cat Snowflake had a medical emergency involving several days in the intensive care unit followed by a labor-intensive, messy, and ultimately doomed recovery period at home.

Live to the truth.

On Friday night, after I’d survived my first week back to school with my new job title and new responsibilities, we put Snowflake to sleep. Perhaps not coincidentally, Friday night was the first time in weeks I had a full night’s sleep, relieved that Snowflake was out of his misery (and the school year was started) at last. For the past two weeks, I’ve been scrambling to prepare for the semester, scrambling to keep up with the usual errands and chores while making umpteen trips to and from the vet, and just plain scrambling. Too many days have gone by without me finding a spare minute to write in my journal much less blog, and I’ve missed it.

Construct webbing and shadows. #lightandshadow #framinghamstate #underconstruction

Writing in my journal is how I make sense of my life: you might call it an inexpensive form of therapy. When I don’t have time to write, I feel uprooted, as if my center of gravity has shifted. Psychologists say that happy changes can be just as stressful as unhappy ones, and I agree. I’m happy about my new position at Framingham State, I’m sad that Snowflake is gone after a miserable struggle, and both realities feel stressful: developments I need (but haven’t had time) to make sense of. Writing is one way I stay grounded in the midst of life’s changes, so when I don’t have time to write, I feel scattered and un-centered.

Changing leaves

Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, and I think I know what he meant. When I’m not writing, my life seems both foreign and shallow, an insubstantial and flimsy thing I observe as if from a distance: someone else’s life, not my own. When I’m writing regularly, I feel more present to my life as it unfolds: I’m present and paying attention, inhabiting my own existence rather than watching it flash before me without conscious consideration. Forget about trying to walk in someone else’s shoes: first you have to learn how to walk in your own.

View from new Science Center fifth floor lounge

I’ve been writing long enough to know I always come back to it eventually, even (or especially) in the aftermath of upheaval. These past two weeks have felt like the moment when you’ve been unexpectedly plunged into deep water. Your rational mind reminds yourself you know how to swim: after the initial uproar of immersion, your body will naturally and inevitably rise. But in the interim, everything everywhere is fluid, and you can’t tell which way is up toward air. Before your body remembers how to float, first it must fall, and you struggle to see anything that isn’t a blur of bubbles and blue.

Degas' Little Dancer

Last night I shared on Facebook a link to an article about famous writers and their journals. The article begins with a quote from Madeleine L’Engle, who tells aspiring writers “if you want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you.” Now that we live in an age where it’s incredibly easy to publish one’s thoughts for all to see, L’Engle’s advice seems outdated and even quaint. What is the value of writing solely for oneself in an era when everyone can have an immediate online audience?

Noh masks

As a writer who keeps both a public blog and a private journal, I feel particularly qualified to comment on this. In many ways, my blog and journal repeat one another: I often blog essays that started as journal entries, revising and expanding upon an idea that arose in my morning scribbles. Occasionally, I’ll write in my journal about something I already blogged, either because a reader’s comment led me to think more deeply about the matter or because my published post didn’t feel “done.” But even though my public blog and my private journal often overlap, I don’t see either as being redundant: instead, they each have an important place in my writing practice, and they each offer their own unique benefits.

Hollywood glamor

Keeping a public blog forces you to consider issues of audience, especially if you blog under your full name. Using your name on your blog means you necessarily have to stand behind anything you post, and you have to be comfortable with the possibility of anyone reading what you write: friends, family, coworkers, strangers, and casual acquaintances alike. This forces you to make conscious decisions about what you will and won’t share to protect your own and others’ privacy. Some would decry this as a form of self-censorship, but I don’t think such limitations are always a bad thing. Professional writers have always made decisions about self-disclosure, deciding how and how much they should include personal details in their writing. In my mind, this kind of discipline is a good thing, as it forces you to express yourself in a careful and deliberate way rather than just spewing your raw thoughts without any thought about consequences.

Protest dress

This isn’t to say, however, that raw thoughts don’t have their place: that’s what both journals and first drafts are for. If my public blog is where I publish and stand behind the work that bears my name, my private journal is where I can go nameless. Nobody reads my morning scribbles, so I don’t have to protect my own or others’ privacy, and I don’t have to worry about making sense. In my private journal I can blather on about whatever inane thoughts happen to be rattling around my head without the need to pretty them up for publication. To mix metaphors, if my blog is where I put my best foot forward, my journal is where I let my hair down.

Degas' Little Dancer

In my mind, the point of keeping a private journal isn’t to write something that is useful, even though I do sometimes use the things I write there. Instead, my journal is a place where I can practice the art of thinking on paper without worrying about those thoughts. When you don’t have an audience, you don’t have to stay on topic, and you don’t have to make sense: you can, in a word, contradict yourself, exhibit faulty logic, say stupid things, and admit all kinds of foibles and hypocrisies. Your journal will never judge you for what you say: your journal, in fact, is simply a mirror of your own mind, reflecting your thoughts without comment or condemnation.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit

When you establish the habit of writing without an audience, you become intimately acquainted with your own mind, seeing the ways you repeat yourself day after day. Over time, you become increasingly familiar with your mind-habits as they unspool in sentences across the page. Even if you never revise or recycle any of this material, you still derive a benefit from producing it. Whereas talking comes naturally, writing is necessarily a second language, and a journal gives writers a place to babble like toddlers, establishing a near-native fluency as we train ourselves to think on paper.

Happiness is...

Earlier this afternoon, I did something I’ve been wanting to do for almost a month: I brewed a mug of tea and wrote in my journal. Between being sick and being buried in the usual mid-semester flood of student papers, I hadn’t written in my journal since November 3, an entry that chiefly chronicled the cold-turned-bronchitis I caught near the end of October:

I slept yesterday, a day-long nap in an attempt to make up for nights riddled with coughing. I sometimes think I’ll never get better–never regain my strength. How is it that something as simple as a cold or flu bug can lay me out so irrevocably, and for so long?

Moleskine

Blogging counts as a kind of journaling, but for me, no amount of blogging can replace the longhand pages I’m in the habit of keeping. For me, blogging is where I think out loud for a live audience, and writing in my paper journal is where I think solely for myself. For me, the strength and authenticity of my outer, public voice is rooted in this more personal, internal dialogue. My daily scribbles are where I figure things out for myself, and my blog reflects the end-result of such ruminations.

Blogging when I haven’t been journaling feels like performing without practicing: yes, a veteran musician or singer can perform for an audience without devoting private hours to her or his craft, but after a while, those public performances can become rote and shallow. My journal is where I find and strengthen my writerly voice. Blogging when I’m not journaling feels precarious and ungrounded, like growing a tree without roots.

This is my Day Twenty-Two contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Kleberg

Yesterday morning the schedule-gods smiled and I had a spare half hour to write in my notebook, at home, after having crossed off a list of chores: dishes loaded into the dishwasher, laundry piled into the washing machine, cats fed, and litter boxes cleaned. In the spare half hour before I left to teach three classes and prepare two more before coming home and collapsing, ready to do it all over again, I took a spare half hour to write in my journal.

Thank you for saving my life

Whenever I’m away from my journal, I struggle the first day I come back: what to say, and where to start? What I like about journaling is the way it requires you to consider each thing in turn: a neat line of words following words. During a hectic week, my thoughts buzz and swarm, too many flying past at once. When I sit down to write, though, these racing thoughts temporarily slow, with me considering one thought then another then the next. The whole mad dash of ideas, obligations, and must-remembers still zooms past, but for a half hour or so I focus on one face in the passing throng, then another, then the next.

Jamie Wyeth retrospective

Writing, in other words, takes the place of therapy for me: it is a place where I consider and make sense of my thoughts, a sanity-making device. It is also a kind of devotional act. I feel a sort of reverence and fidelity to the page—this present notebook—and feel a pang of guilt when I stray from it, a faithful friend who has never strayed from me.

Jamie Wyeth retrospective

It almost doesn’t matter what I write in my notebook; all that matters is that I do write, coming back to the page that reflects with such honest accuracy the contents of my wandering mind. It doesn’t matter what I write, in other words; it just matters that I have written. In this regard, I see writing as my own secular kind of prayer, as I doubt God cares much about the words we use when we pray, only the fact that we show up and spend some time.

Jamie Wyeth retrospective

With writing as with prayer, I think you show up as you are, then words are provided for you, each one appearing of its own accord. Both writing and prayer involve great faith. Not only do you need to believe your wishes will be granted, you also need courage to even utter those wishes in the first place. Do you dare open your heart and share the unspoken desires you find there? Do you dare think you can address God without God laughing in your face? Both writing and prayer require faith that what you say is both true and worth saying. Both writing and prayer demand you have courage to continue even when (especially when) no one seems to be listening.

Pumpkinhead (self-portrait)

Both writing and prayer, in other words, require infinite faith in yourself: faith that what lies in your heart is true and worth sharing, and faith that you deserve to be heard. Before a child can ask her father for bread rather than a stone, that child must believe she is deserving of bread. Whether God is there reading my words or hearing my prayers is almost beside the point. I myself benefit from the courage it takes to write or pray, whether or not anyone is listening.

(I wrote this entry last week and only got around to posting it today. The photos illustrating today’s post come from the Jamie Wyeth retrospective on exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts through December.)

Brown-eyed girl - March 5 / Day 64

Today Beth of The Cassandra Pages celebrates her 10 year blog-birthday, and the entry she posted to commemorate the occasion raises for me the usual questions about what my “real work” is. Is it writing blog posts? Writing books? Teaching? Taking care of pets? When it’s all done and I’m dead, will it make any difference that I blogged, or that I did anything at all? What does it mean, after all, to make a difference in a world that keeps spinning—change and impermanence reigning supreme—whether I do anything or not?

Cool

What, in other words, is any writer’s “real” work? Annie Dillard, whom I’d like to emulate as much as anyone, said at the beginning of Teaching a Stone to Talk that her short nonfiction essays weren’t written to supplement her “real” work; instead, her short essays are her real work. Another of my literary heroes, Henry David Thoreau, wrote essays, poetry, several book-length works of nonfiction, and a multi-volume journal he spent his entire adult life adding to, page by page. So what was Thoreau’s “real” work? The books published during his lifetime? The books published after his death? The journal he spent his entire creative life adding to, and which served as the source of his published essays and book-length nonfiction?

Diamond-eyed skull

Blogging is an ephemeral genre: what I wrote last week doesn’t matter much tomorrow. But if you look at a blog as being an ongoing project, then the dedication it takes to keep a blog going long-term has to count for something. As Beth herself writes,

…what emerges is a body of work. It isn’t conventional, or even graspable, and perhaps will be impermanent, but I know that it is, in fact, THE body of artistic work accomplished in my lifetime which most closely represents me. It’s also taught me the most. Once upon a time I wasn’t satisfied with that. Now, I am.

Spray can

Ten years is a long time to do anything faithfully, much less thoughtfully and with care. It took me ten years to get my PhD, and between you and me, those letters after my name haven’t meant much in terms of professional prestige: I make no more money and have no more job security as “Dr.” than I did as “Ms.” So is my dissertation—a book-length work that was the culmination of ten years of scholarly work and now sits in the archives of my alma mater—somehow count for more than Beth’s ten-year body of blog-work just because my dissertation was “published” and earned me some letters after my name?

KB / DP

Both Beth’s blog and my dissertation reflect ten years of work, but one has been reaching out to readers and encouraging them on an almost-daily basis to think, write, read, draw, paint, take photos, sing, make books, speak out, and otherwise be active and engaged, whereas the other is considered a scholarly work and collects dust. So what is the “worth” of an active mind engaged in creative pursuits? What is the “worth” of ten years of showing up, paying attention, and sharing what you see?

Black door

If you’re a writer of nonfiction prose, it’s easy to fall into the trap of categorizing your work on the basis of its length: sustained, book-length narratives are “real work,” and short, self-contained essays are something else. If you’re a writer of nonfiction prose who also keeps a blog, it’s even easier to get confused by these categories: short, self-contained essays that are published in print count as “real work,” but blog-entries (no matter how carefully crafted) do not.

Orange

I would love to write a book, as Beth has: I have always wanted to write a book. At the moment, I have the vague, sketchy outline of book-length narrative in my head, but whenever I turn to work on it, my ideas turn tail and flee. Given my desire to write this book, should I force myself to work on it exclusively, even when it doesn’t “want” to be worked on, or should I follow my muse wherever it appears, even if that means working on the book while also writing “mere” blog-essays that may or may not ever “lead somewhere”?

Sponge Bob?

That is the sticking point, isn’t it: this idea that what we do should “lead somewhere”? The other night I had dinner with Seon Joon, whose blog is younger than Beth’s, but just as deep. Seon Joon asked me, point blank, whether I was working on a book, remembering (I’m sure) that I’d mentioned one, vaguely, the last time we’d talked. My response to her was yes, I’m working on a book…but no, I don’t know whether that work is leading somewhere, or whether the product of that work will ever be finished, much less published. But in the meantime, I know I’m enjoying the process of working on a book, keeping a blog, and basically being creative in one way or another every single day.

Rise up

Regardless of where the road leads, in other words, I’m happy being on that road. Did Thoreau know when he started his journal that it would eventually fill some seven thousand pages and be published as a work in its own right? Or did Thoreau keep a journal simply because keeping a journal felt right as he was doing it?

I for one am glad that Beth has been blogging faithfully and thoughtfully these past ten years. She is one of the writers who inspired me to start a blog of my own, and the fact that she is still posting is immensely inspiring. Maybe the real work isn’t a noun—a product you finish and publish—but a verb: a thing you do and keep doing. If that be the case, then here’s hoping Beth keeps up the real work for a very long time.