Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: When the Creative Well Seems Dry

Just when I was feeling pleased that I am never at a loss for inspiration or words that tell of it, I found myself being just that. I’m not over it yet, despite writing this post. My brain’s language function is operant but it feels as if there is little worth saying to myself, much less others. I was about to seek out writing prompts–not a bad idea–but I resist it. It somehow feels like cheating though I know it isn’t. We can get creative juices flowing in many ways. My favorite is letting notions and their language unveil themselves; it happens this way for me. I am grateful. Until it doesn’t.

A writer doesn’t look kindly on a very long pause. I know it’s the same for a composer, longing for a few measures of decent notes. Or an artist with the blank paper or canvas or metal sit there, accusingly blank, so that she also blanks out, at a loss. It might be hours or days; perhaps weeks. Longer. Anyone who loves to create–it may be a basket, a piece of jewelry or woodworking project, a new flower garden or a dance–knows what I mean. We are wellsprings of energy and ideas, then suddenly, we are not.

These days we might suggest it is the pandemic that has bled us dry of great possibilities. That seems reasonable to blame dry spells on, but I am loathe to agree. Lots of people are being productive–perhaps even more so now that millions are forced to be at home. At least I keep hearing of individuals starting afresh, setting themselves to all manner of marvelous endeavors: writing books, starting nonprofits, becoming supercharged political activists, redesigning their homes, discovering new talents. But for me life has bumped along in basic and familiar ways. I have managed to avoid the virus’ infection thus far. And I quit working in my chosen field a few years ago so open ended days and nights are not novel. (It is my spouse who now struggles with the impact of sudden downsizing.)

So what is my problem? How come I’m not getting more done, why do I feel it is not as comfortable to write? Maybe I am all written out. Tired of keeping fingers on the keyboard week after week. Weary of the life I do live, and of writing about it as if it is interesting.

It might start with basic ennui…lack of motivation related to feeling below optimum level of well being–the common malaise…that happened to me this week, as I battle with chronic health issues best as I can. Or, say, a friend or family incident might require that my energy move into a different direction, to another need. This happens, but less than when I saw family and friends routinely. Sure, I text, I call, we Zoom–we all know it isn’t the same.

However, this morning a daughter let me know that she had gotten “jalapeno hands”–look it up, it is real—last night after cutting up the peppers; her hands were extremely painful for hours, burning. And this morning their cat attacked her viciously enough that he might need to be sent elsewhere…for good. So I have had her on my mind, and wish I could run over to wrap my mother hug about her.

And I will note, as well, that Marc has applied for 100 positions since April and nothing has worked out–that gives me plenty to tune into other than what I want to write. I have studied how to manage things on a seriously restricted budget–like many others have done. I’ve even had a dream about adding up figures, trying to work it out. These are topics readers can relate to, so I could write of them more, I suppose. Note my lagging interest. Even though I do write memoir, I can’t so often write precisely what I live. It gets dull for me. And perhaps can be too tender a telling to share.

However, there are other times I feel my friendly Muse has lost interest and taken a leave of absence. I understand, if so. It can get redundant and claustrophobic in this head, the same themes rising to the top, like those songs on replay as I go about my business–and driving me nutty. Sometimes one has to stop all input, clear things out, take a break to rejuvenate.

I might also I struggle with a project a long while. Months or years. So many rewrites, countless excisions of bad adjectives, whole paragraphs, wimpy characters–until it can seem piecemeal, not a whole creation–and thus, becomes ruined. I feel used up then, and think the original idea was worthless. And sometimes it is. The manuscript goes into the documents files, taking up much space, and is ignored. I might get back to some of these–and maybe not. They may have served their purpose, been a housecleaning mentally, got me going in other directions. And I have only so much time. I am not 30, 40, 50…well, the years are not getting longer.

The truth is I can get story-shy for awhile, averse to writing. I despise those times and though few, they leave me sad and longing to write again. Even a title, a sentence, a phrase–so that is what I do. Write these on grocery list pads of paper or my “resource notebooks” stacked in a basket by my computer. Or junk mail envelopes, scraps of napkin, sticky notes left on my desk to gather dust, a book mark I pull out of a bedside novel middle of the night. And, too, I leave voice memos on my phone and check those now and then if I run too dry.

One way to guarantee a loss of writing impetus, and loss of confidence, is to think hard on something I learned a few years ago: a writer is not an author until his or her book is published. That means no matter how much work appears in anthologies or articles are printed in a newspaper or pieces are included in literary journals, the writer is still not, apparently, an Author. One can even be nominated for a prestigious literary prize (it happened) and still, “author” is not attached to one’s name or work. Being a blog writer also does not “count”, no matter how many people read the blog. Those who are authors state this in no uncertain terms.

Why bother writing? People who don’t write ask me this often. I have published this and that since I was a youth and yet, no book. I’ve not been bitten with a lust to publish a book, not yet. I think the “what if” came and went at least 15 years ago. It seemed like so much work for so little gain. I know how it is to send out a manuscript and have it returned, again and again and again–I mailed them for decades, that’s how long I’ve been writing–and also have done the online submissions route. I try not to think about how tremendous a number of writers are doing the same. Sometimes it has worked out alright, and that’s good. But no book. Not enough in print.

Without earthly gains, it is clear the reason I write is simple. And a cliche: I love it. I write because it is endemic to who I am so this act of creativity will not cease until finally I have no more wherewithal: no lucidity or strength to put a single sentence down and set it free, right along with my own self.

So I continue, yet can question if my writer’s warrior will has gone missing. Or the stories have gone hiding, lying in wait for another receiver, another scribe. And, for sure, I might have gotten emptied for a bit. It is a parched state of being. I realize intervention requires more of that clear, cool water of psyche and soul. It has to bubble up from subterranean places where words are offered life– so they percolate and permutate, slowly rise to the opening mind, and come to glorious (or acceptable; one cannot always expect marvelous results) fruition.

I feel sure my brain’s language function knows I am a receptacle for story, no matter how small and no matter if unread. The left hemisphere and right hemisphere are in cahoots with each other and thus, me. Never have I believed stories and poems (or anything artistic) were mine alone, if mine at all. I cannot gather and develop them without the mysterious sources of inspiration that reveal, clarify, transform and liberate them. Maybe only to a deep silence or beyond the ether–but that is not such a disappointing bit of alchemy. Go with the flow, it all works out.

Maybe the writing magic is akin to what happens in a farmer’s field. The farmer plants and tends, brings forth from the soil a cornucopia of necessary, beautiful, delicious vegetables and other wonders. But there are also fallow times for a field, when it is left idle to recover nutrients. And its fertility returns in greater force. Every creature, every part of nature requires time out, whether for night’s sleep or period of hibernation. Work still is being done–in an episode of restful repair, a quiet regeneration of life-giving substances and forces. The result is more visible productivity when it comes time to take more action. To once more plant the seeds, to tend, to nourish–until the wholeness of growth is ripe and ready for further use.

To let rest: this isn’t rocket science, as the saying goes, but it can prove an elusive concept to me regardless. I have to stop and remember important things, how forces and ideas work at deeper levels, how many have examined and embraced different ways of being, growing, creating. This has gone on for centuries; what my predecessors have found useful wisdom can well supplement my own. And alter it in significant ways. So I do use fallow times to read others’ work more, to contemplate spiritual matters, to be among the trees. To remain open. The simplest things can mean the most and replenish me more thoroughly. And when something new or just fun is experienced, that wellspring can erupt once more.

I know I will write more prolifically again. Perhaps better, perhaps not, though I am always reaching for a finer moment of creation, make progress as I continue. I can discover possibilities every hour if I am patient and attentive to life, let my heart, soul, mind and senses take it all in. The words will come and even if they resist my need of them, the stories are right here, at my nose and fingertips, waiting. The well will not, in fact, run entirely dry. It is only an illusion that my ego notes and fears.

Above my desk is a photo of a woman, eyes closed and leaning at her open window; her elbows rest on the sill, chin in one hand. She smiles as early sunlight gilds her skin. Below the picture is a quote from poet Mary Oliver’s work, “Where Does the Temple End, Where Does it Begin?”. I look at it daily, savor those words– how much more there is to hold close, I think, and am humbled and glad. The poet says:

“I look; morning to night I am never done looking. Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around as though with your arms open.”

Such sage words. And I wonder what else that woman hears and smells and loves and knows. See, this unknown woman is one of the necessary and golden stories, gifts I am fortunate to find.

Time Out for This Bird

DSCF7177

Well, it’s been a busy, fruitful week, ending on a pleasant note though underlined by soggy skies and cooler temperatures. True, hyacinths, daffodils, magnolias and more are bountiful, happy dabs of color within our ever-green landscape. I do adore the Pacific Northwest. But I have a mind to head out on a warmer, even brighter mosey. High time to again flee comfortable territory and explore other captivating scenery and meet interesting folks, as well as take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy family I don’t get to see often.

It may be hard for me to write less…it’s a need I do heed wherever I am…but I will return to this blog on March 21st. I am hoping to share a refreshed perspective as I let loose new stories. It always helps me to take in different scenes and consider other ideas milling about out there. And, of course, there are photographs–I have a grand time recording experiences via camera, as well. Or a notebook or sketch pad. Or a lunch napkin, for that matter, if that’s handiest.

Thanks for so many positive, helpful responses to the latest nonfiction post on smoking and other unhealthy habits. I am also gratified that you’re enjoying other stories, fiction or otherwise. I feel truly blessed to be gaining a great readership as I bang away at my keyboard each week. My deepest creative joy, my privilege, is to write. Over eight thousand followers now; I cannot even imagine it. I just keep blogging away each week as well as otherwise writing something, anything, daily as though it is essential. But I genuinely look forward to other people’s intriguing offerings. Truth is, I’m thrilled to be part of the diverse thought-provoking, humorous and caring worldwide WordPress community.

Bishop's Close, teal 004
Catch you later–you have a safe, adventurous week out there, too, and practice kindness while you’re at it. We all need to give and receive more, just for the good of it, just for this sweet life.

Wrestling with Writing Business: Submitting Work

DSCN3906
Just a few of my writing books, not all read, by my computer desk. There are files–and piles–of manuscripts beneath this photo…

Uncharacteristically, I have felt less than motivated to write for the blog today. I have been engaged in the business of submission to lit journals, a couple of short stories. And I admit to being a little worn out.

Those formatting requirements take a lot of effort from me to complete without error. It may not be so for others who are speedy typists, who feel comfortable with all aspects of computer cues as well as various lit magazine idiosyncrasies. But for me, the requirements smack of applying for a passport. Such journals may not demand my birth certificate (I could hide behind a pen name and it matters little), but they want so much more than I expect or feel is truly reasonable when I am just a writer who wants to put my writing out there. But there is that pesky word count which changes as I see one more thing to excise or rearrange. There is certain spacing between title and first paragraph, there is a type of margin needed re: justification versus alignment. There is the font. Which of three is best?–and always use 12-point unless it states otherwise. I cannot seem to number pages beginning on the second; the first one always grabs number “1” even if I try and try and yell at it.

The cover letter if required, well. It’s like a grade making/breaking thesis assignment from the honors English teacher you couldn’t bear to listen to much less look at, she was so smartly arrogant–but who you knew you absolutely needed. And the paper was preparatory to something bigger and finer. Right? So the poetry or short story cover letter takes me days, possibly weeks. If it is a novel I am pitching to an agent, it takes months. May take years, in fact. I have gone to workshops for queries and cover letters and emerged refreshed with a dash of comfort while remaining puzzled. And afraid.

The road embarked upon each time I decide to submit a piece appears to have no tangible end. It is perforated with potholes. I cannot slip into autopilot. There is a proliferation of steps though one proceeds the others. It should be simple. My story started out fine but now it is being jostled and tugged and squashed as I follow directions of the online site. There are still paper routes to follow and those are even trickier. You have to sweat to propel a tale or two to their destinations where they may be deigned lovely and fit or ill-suited and irrelevant.

Because I also procrastinate this writer’s task, a deadline is noted in hours, then minutes and seconds, much like it was when taking exams as a student. I sigh, massage my forehead and get up and sit down. I eyeball each sentence to root out errant typos which proliferate like moss in the Northwest. I am the rock foolish enough to believe it won’t happen again on each crucial page if I am just watchful. And spell check is…let’s say it’s less than the finest proofreader but the best my money can buy for now.

I have a few bookshelves that hold in questionable order many volumes on writing. Do I read with earnestness those books that expound on how writing is an endeavor of mind, spirit and heart so I just need to be true to myself? Not so much; I know that already even if I need reminding at times. Like today, perhaps. But no, I read the manuscript formatting books, the writers’ handbooks that contain all the arcane info I need to succeed in clean, righteous submissions. For example, The Chicago Manual of Style, which intimidates me as much as my English teacher did. I mark pages in highlighter, circle most pertinent bits, draw arrows and stars, yes. The pages are soiled and wavy. They will save my story from the slush pile at first glance. Because I know any decent editor will not even read past the initial word of a manuscript that does not first follow the rules.

Luckily, I was well-trained to do that very thing. In my family home and in school knowing the rules and following them is what we were instructed to do. Must do. In point of fact, civilization was likely built upon several basic rules and they were meant to help us out, we were oft reminded. If I heard from my parents that I was “not acting civilized”, I knew what that meant immediately and self-corrected. But that didn’t mean, of course, I always liked or even followed them entirely. I just wanted to stick my foot outside the line of kids and shake it about.

However, I’ve tried to do as directed when it comes to submission protocols. I respect the command. I want to do right.

Online submissions are, happily, somewhat easier than the days when everything had to be typed and mailed. I appreciated the heft and clickety-clack of typewriters but hated that mistakes couldn’t be easily removed. I enjoy the tactile experience of paper, that feel and shape of a manuscript in my hand but disliked the postage it cost and length of time it took to get it there. And to hear back. Although it was thrilling to find a letter in the mail saying “yes, we love it.” Also disheartening to see the SASE envelope I had included in the first mailing that now enclosed my work, sure sign of no acceptance. There might be editorial comments, a bonus, a hope that I could try again. I recall one poetry magazine editor that initiated a correspondence about my poem which continued for a few months. She did not, in the end, accept it because I was not rewriting it any further. Maybe I’ll look it over and resubmit now that it has rested for thirty-odd years. Or maybe it wasn’t so good; hard to know until resurrected, then sent out again.

So it is still taking me time to master the business part of writing even though I am older than I imagined I’d be and here I am, still at it. I can sit at the computer working on a project for hours while the sun goes down and I don’t even think to turn on the lights. Until my husband speaks too loudly in my ear that dinner is ready now and it will get cold but it’s up to me. I rather sail away for long periods until it is either too hard to sit longer or I am finally as done as I can be–for the time being. It’s heaven, really.

But submitting the story I worked on all those moments–that is a hard thing to do. I’m not even noting the emotional part of it–because, really, it is not that devastating to be sent a rejection. It means work on it more or try another one. In the publishing world, stories and such are commodities. I don’t first write for an agent or editor. It’s not that I don’t know ethical, kind people who are both (and some are also writers, thank goodness). They are just not the ones I am writing for or with, most of the time. No one honestly understands the ways of a writer’s life other than those who do it day in, day out–or whenever they make time to do it. Family and friends–well-meaning, well-read and good folks– keep waiting for me to publish more, to become an author who might even sell. If only they knew about the submission process and how it can test one’s patience. And how it eats up my time. It’s perhaps not my main priority yet. Not holding my breath, either.

I write out of joy. A desire to let words gather surprises, to reap benefits for me–and I hope for you. I care for writing so much that it cannot use up or contain my love. There is always more to be discovered, to learn from, and to be shared. And the submissions happen in between the beautiful grind of it, my devotion to creation and craft.

I sent it off, that short story. This time it was one posted on this very blog, Tales for Life. You enjoyed it. Maybe others will, too. If not, I won’t be fussing over it. I’ll be working on a few longer stories teasing my mind. And another something will be sent out when the time (when there is some left over) feels right.

 

Making My Way Upstream

flyingfish

I am no domestic goddess. I was all but shooed away from the kitchen as a child and youth as my mother reminded me that I needed to study or practice my cello or voice lessons, work on figures for ice skating, or whatever else was crucial to learn and do that moment. My parents were forward-looking people in a time when most were solidifying traditional roles. They wanted all their children to have their minds broadened, seek excellent educations. Mave a few good waves intellectually or creatively. I didn’t complain. On the contrary, I felt sprung from the brig.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the inviting ambience of kitchens. Few things were as reassuring as watching my mother create a fresh apple pie. I didn’t mind helping a little–I could swiftly peel apples and potatoes, occasionally in one long peel, thanks to her tutoring. But other than making salads, toast and poached eggs (the egg poacher promised me easy success), chocolate cookies and grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup, thanks to Campbell’s–well, my repertoire was severely limited but it didn’t impact me. (That was later, after marriage to a man whose mother ran her own catering business.) The best I could do some days was open a jar of home canned pears or peaches and sprinkle cinnamon with a dash of wheat germ on top for garnish. This was my response to being asked to make a fruit dish. Voila–nutritious sweetness, about the extent of my culinary aspirations.

I was good at being a hostess, however. I could refill glasses and coffee cups with elan. I could offer silverplated or cut glass bowls full of nuts and mints, platters of shining strawberries or lace-delicate cookies; I could sneak away an emptied dish and replace it with something new. I had no idea this was what waitresses did for money. It was just what children did when told. I was trained in niceties as well as the art of interested, fairly intelligent conversation. I didn’t have any argument with this. I liked to listen to and examine our guests. They often were musicians with fascinating tidbits to share. And a palpable tranquility is evoked when one behaves in a civilized way. Manners are still valuable to me, seemingly verging on extinction if many street and sidewalk behaviors are any indication. They may seem superficial to some, but if you practice long enough you will daily begin to feel more benevolent toward the general populace. And much more patient with those you’d prefer to ignore.

But while engaging in conversation or completing my small kitchen task, I was longing to climb our sheltering maple, get comfy in a crook of the tree and write another play for neighborhood kids. Yours truly snagging the starring role, of course. I wanted to sing the song wending its way through my brain or finish a poem I had begun the previous evening. And there was that montage I had begun with cut out pictures of a South American jungle, and a paddlewheel boat gliding down the Mississippi, plus that chic woman–Jean Shrimpton, a famous model, or was it Verushka, my favorite?–dashing across the street in London, a Pucci scarf dangling from her fingers. The scattered words I spelled out in different types: DO WHATEVER COMES TO YOU NOW. Or some such thing that found its way into my pile of clippings and I found clever or ironic.

As a child and youth I gave over to dreaming regularly. And today, as ever, when that creative impulse comes over me I’ve often felt as if in a trance. I just need to let things happen, be available to follow the muse. Right then. To do otherwise can feel as if I am a creature out of its natural habitat, an awkward, flopping fish trying to find its way upstream when what it wants to do is leap the tantalizing bank and fly. Or play a rousing Irish jig at a corner cafe before some sharp, hat-wearing guy and a gum-snapping brunette come in and grab said fish to fry up for a meal. Oh, gosh…apologies, I got caught up in the fish flying scene and my proclivities. What rescue does the next paragraph have to offer?

Well, back to the post at hand. The fish can carry on alone a bit.

There is always, in this adult life, work and obligations, and with those may also come the privilege to attend to creative work. To play but play whole heartedly. Thoroughness was the way. I understood that early on. It takes discipline to complete anything and to do it well, more of the same. It needs to be being done in a timely manner, too. “Every thing has its season”, I read and heard.

So that is what I have told myself as I have wrapped up the wedding plans. There has been so much to plan, re-check, alter, research, find a Plan B (or C) in the event Plan A falls flat. To complete the whole, the small details must be aligned and made to fit. The goal is a good wedding. Not an expert one, not one that the society pages review, thank goodness. But a wedding that will bring together families and friends and leave indelible contentment and laughter in the hearts of my daughter and her fiance.

Okay, but when do I get to write?

Every word that has gone into these posts the last five or six weeks has come at the cost of something else. Right now I should be cleaning the bedrooms. Or perhaps storing some of those mountains of books that are lined up against the electric heat board (in case it has to be turned on, or they get in the way of someone’s feet). I have more laundry to do. (Don’t we all?)

But I want to write. I long to write. Always.

It’s not that I have life-altering insights that others haven’t already noted a few times over. The feel and shape and sound of words entice me, bedazzle me, hold me up and free me. They are a currency I use to garner beauty and wonderment. They are what keep me afloat when everything has sprung a leak. Words can be the most attentive companions when other ones have somehow disappeared. They are the live wires that transfer–sometimes seem to translate–mythic ideas or fresh poetry, prayers I am given or tall tales from other realms to me, a writer. As an avid dictionary reader, I can say I have never met a word I have not fallen for, even when it turns out to be the wrong one.

So I am giving myself a few moments today. I know after tonight this place will be resounding not with words placed upon a page but those with life that is pulsing, soothing, words fully inflected issuing from the unique voices of my family members. Oh, it will be a cacaphonious symphony of sound and meaning. May we all enjoy such times.

Yes, I am about to put on my “hostess apron” and answer the doorbell many times. Greet adult kids at airports. Put out coffee and tea, scones or a pot of stew, all the necessary accoutrements. I am set to direct the logistics like a traffic conductor, whistle in hand. And I even bought a new teatowel and kitchen rug. I checked to make sure the best tablecloths are stain-free. I am hoping my husband will still be willing to cook most everything. I am truly not talented at this  but “act as if” because I like gatherings. But I can and will wrap my arms around each person. I can welcome them, smell autumn on their shoulders, or saltiness of tears (that wedding…), arcane and memorable scents of all as they sidle up and say something funny or good in my ear. I will be intensely present because I care to be here, and don’t want to miss one minute. Even if there are mishaps or difficult moments. It is the multi-texture of life, what is in between, under and over each weave that I seek to know and file away. It’s love.

The family members and friends all intrigue and inspire me. They are funny, daring, bright, full of foibles that can drive us all crazy, with hearts that beat in strong, diverse ways. I am going to dive in and write of them and the events. Infant poems are just there on the edge of thinking and dreaming, whispering secrets, unfurling colors, shapes, feelings. A story alights briefly, then floats, wings hovering, its energies infusing me with ideas. I will not forget; I will keep it all in the waiting place inside and finish my present work. I tend to believe the story itslef knows I will put down the tea kettle and pick up the pen again.

 

(Note: Due to the impending nuptials of aforementioned cherished daughter, I will not be posting again until later next week.)