How I’m Seeing It Today

My head is full of pictures, those recently snapped as well as those saturating the media. Additionally, there are those arising from music heard and night dreams, from daily walks and greater journeys. I fill my head with images in magazines, from photography shared by others on blogs and elsewhere, from the spare art work I design in my mind and at times on paper. More visual than some, less than others, I am apt to think in images at some point even as ideas are swapped in live conversation. Yes, language is the tool that build foundation and habitation within which writing works and thrives. Words are conduits that provide emotions, postulations and hard facts the heft of expanding life. Yet intellectual inquiries, stories or poems do evoke pictures, unleash mentally constructed scenarios. I as well as others read books, in part, due to that very expectation. We want to be taken into another place or time for a rich experience, another life or few with attendant differing viewpoints. Open a book and discover stages being set and soon you are absorbed by narrative, each act and part played out as you become them as well as an invisible figure within an unfolding scene. Yes, miraculous words.

But it’s clear we are animals that rely heavily upon visual data. This begs the question about what we truly do see and also store in our memories. It also asks us how it impacts each person from that moment. How do news images provoke and shape the tenor of our days and nights, our very thoughts? How about films and television, art and even live theater? There has been much debate about the violence in our country and it is most distressingly hypnotic when we see it on a huge screen.

The Las Vegas massacre was horrific beyond any imagining, the latest in mass murders and worldwide terrorist attacks. Firearm-related deaths are increasingly numerous the past few decades in the U.S. There have long been protests about the entertainment industry depicting vicious and deadly violence too often. Sometimes I go from the news to a television show and find there are disturbing similarities. How did this come about and why isn’t it being responsibly addressed by scriptwriters and producers? I find it hard to believe that an everyday man or woman longs to be engulfed by such shows. I promptly change the channel or just turn it off. There is less and less I care to watch so carefully choose films or a series. Even then, I can be bamboozled by first scenes and finally have to give up.

This is the point when I face my responsibility for my own well-being. And for what I create, both for me and any readers. There are topics I write about frequently, things that have mattered to me professionally or personally. Not easy subjects at times, they center on physical, emotional and spiritual wholeness or its ruinous lack. I evaluate how healing has occurred and how to continue to take care as well as how others might improve their lives. And since violence personally has impacted my life, I do not seek it though I do note its worldly presence. I may have been a counselor who remained very calm when faced with a bitter, aggressive client but inside I was swamped with sadness, compassion; weary, too, of the pain and misery I witnessed.

The powerlessness we often feel when catastrophic events occur can be paralyzing. The overload of images and reports can become numbing, even take over sleep, then intrude on wakefulness. If we actually live through such events, it is magnified a thousand fold, encompasses everything. For the rest, it’s natural to note increased stress and even depression when indirectly immersed via the news. We may worry daily about the state of things. If we are prayerful, those prayers become more intense and frequent. Yet we have choices–to take action, to help improve the lives we inhabit as well as others’. How best to do that besides donating money to various charities or causes, or being politically more active?

An editor and author I know and respect, Jessica Morrell, shared on social media and also in her essay that those who write need to keep writing, to not let the world’s debacles, crises and sorrows mute our voices (http://jessicamorrell.com). I agree and  commented that “to not to write is to signal giving up.” We can use pain and worry to fuel worthy artistic responses. To fashion greater commitment to change while mining more hope. To feed the life-renewing energy even one beneficial action can instill. A powerful state results from being present and practicing empathy in daunting times. It is critical for me to maintain an internal and external balance by instigating positive creative activity. It is at the core of my being, this urge to care as well as create in an often bedazzled yet beleaguered life.

Decades ago, a therapist I met for a first session looked at me long and hard, then said, “You’re carrying the grief of the world inside you.” It first startled me–that she’d easily found vulnerability, that pulsing kernel of love and also of despair. In the quietest places inside it rang out as true. Tears suddenly flowed. The larger world spun within me, yes, because what I had experienced countless other people already had for centuries in one way or another. And what was not yet experienced I could imagine, connect to in the nerve center of who I was. There had to be an outlet for all that, one that didn’t any more destroy me (as addiction had nearly managed).

Therapy can be helpful but I had to keep writing poetry and prose and songs, dance, make art, explore and use as a wellspring the lavish complexities of nature. That and more often reach out. There is nothing like helping others to hew a healthy path away from our own self-centered issues. We identify with others or at least empathize when we have shouldered burdens and grappled with our own monstrous moments. There are many ways to accomplish this. We each have leanings, talents and yet-hidden resources we can develop. We just need to make opportunities to try our hand at something useful or beautiful or honorable.

I used to worry about being of real service. Sometimes I still do, feeling what I now offer can never be enough–this pecking away at the keyboard and letting the sentences float into a virtual atmosphere. This amateurish taking of endless pictures, this offering up of my vision as single moments of an embracing faith and wonderment. But it’s largely what I can do in this world. It is the joyous challenge that propels my life.

Once when I was in my twenties a former in-law asked if I would “ever learn decent domestic skills–can’t you even darn socks? Can you only write poetry?”

“Yes, that’s all,” I answered, hurt and embarrassed (it was mostly true, I had little talent for those duties) yet felt fierce as I held my head up. “Because I am working on being a poet, not so much a housewife.”

I learned how to fix torn and broken things in all sorts of ways eventually, how to make roast chicken dinners and can fresh tomatoes, plant flower seeds and split wood, make a lasting fire from old furniture when every pipe froze and the good wood was gone. But I wrote poems as much as I could and anything else so moved to write. It didn’t occur to me it wasn’t at least as necessary to nourish heart and soul as it was to feed the stomach–and this is what I taught my children from the start. It is important to make something from nothing, to recognize and create beauty for its own sake, to delve deeper for truths. To use time and abilities on endeavors that may not ever garner worldly rewards. Because we are not just bellies and brains, sinew and bone.

What I do will in fact never be “enough” but I don’t have to be the only one trying to do anything. All over this world there are scores of others forging creative roads into new territory right this moment. Sharing inspirational stories in print or around a warming fire. Negotiating peace or demonstrating revolutionary lives, perhaps with potent essays. We cannot live well if at all in the world without these flares of hope. And so I keep on writing, taking pictures of all that moves me, whatever might have some value. I join each day a vast community of doers and dreamers. Now more than ever, we must take action.

Remember the images I spoke about at the beginning of this post? It seems as if I focused more on writing yet each sentence has been accompanied by an image in the multitasking brain. Still, I also took a lot of photographs over last week-end in the three-dimensional world. Let me share some of what I saw–a small offering, a little balm. (And please click on each circle to see full photo.)

Peace to you, wherever you live and strive and love.

 

Writing: Getting My Money’s Worth

 

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It was clear what I was going to write about today–friendship, perhaps a specific friend, current or past. First I shopped at Goodwill with a daughter, then got a few groceries. I worried a bit about having the afternoon free to tackle my subject. Once home, however, I realized laundry needed to be done. After I got that going, I was hungry so took my time eating yogurt and some trail mix for a late lunch. Then I tidied up and that led to lingering over several childhood pictures I’d left on my desk when searching for my passport. Then I stared at the stacks of books and wondered which ones should go into a “Still to Read This Summer” pile. I was able to resist the urge to go through them that moment. Things could wait; I needed to write.

It was four o’clock in the afternoon and I hadn’t put one word on the page. How many more ways could writing be avoided? Not many more; I write something every day. Besides, I am committed to writing two prose pieces (one fiction, one non-fiction) and two short poems weekly for my blogs.

I have many topics for non-fiction. I don’t maintain a list but they gather and file themselves in my mind. From the moment I awaken cogitation about writing begins and today was no exception.

But one topic kept nagging me: how does one continue being a writer despite those dreaded black times when a project or piece seems to be going nowhere, few who know you even care, those who have authority deem your work less than worthy or worse, and your toil and effort seem wasted even to yourself?

I recently decided to pay a well-known editor to assess the first one hundred pages of my first completed novel, the one that I began in 1999 (perhaps before). I had deferred it a long while; it’s an expensive service. I had researched editors off and on, so when I finally found someone I respected, had met before and appreciated and who was willing to look at my work sooner rather than later, I dug up the money. Yes, you read it right: I cannot afford to pay for editing of over five hundred pages of my novel. It made sense that the opening chapters would provide enough material for J. to deeply scrutinize themes, some basic character development, voice, plot development and dramatic arcs, mechanics, and so on. I would take her evaluation and use it to improve things. Or not.

I had felt for the last decade that it lacked what it needed. I had gone through over the entire five hundred pages with a fine-toothed comb at least seven times; smaller cuts and alterations occurred sometimes daily. When sharing it in writing groups, I received mixed responses, much helpful feedback. Around five years ago I stopped revising and mulling it over. I was sick and tired of it, despite the devotion pledged to it. I was busy working on other projects, sending out other manuscripts. But my first novel, Other Than Words, sat untouched until I found J. I had to know if having had an excerpt published and nominated for a Pushcart Prize was a strong enough indicator that the novel could succeed, or if it needed to be rewritten. Or even trashed.

After two weeks J. got back to me with a six page summary and painstaking notations. Somehow, before I opened the email and documents, I knew to steel myself. Afterall, I’d been unhappy with it long before hiring her.

Essentially, she stated the pages fail in critical ways. They don’t move fast enough, offer enough dramatic hooks, are too interior, need more of a traditional plot structure than what I aimed to accomplish. Not only that, the female protagonist of this two-part novel was “unlikable and tiresome by page 100.” That was a bit miserable to hear although the character was supposed to be difficult at the start. She evolves over the course of the story and is even admirable, I think, and loveable–much later. But point taken. The reader has to empathize and be intrigued by charcters to even continue to read. How could I have missed that elementary truth?

I finished the summary of insights and suggestions. It was clear she had put in a lot of effort and given me clear indicators of strengths (there were a few of those) and weaknesses (more than I’d hoped). Her words carried the authority she has in the business. She also noted I have talent, that the concept is fascinating and she appreciated themes noted in the synopsis. I saw those words the second time I read her summary and it helped.

It needs a thorough re-write and I got what I paid for and more. J. gave it acute attention. The novel can only benefit. I started to consider other corrective actions I could make, ways I could re-write the story so it is no longer two parts, change the characters to better reflect the themes and, of course, add more surefire action. The editor’s feedback was crucial in clarifying where it stands, what it needs to deliver the goods and how I might hit the target when submitting to an agent one day.

Book by Pat Walsh
Book by Pat Walsh

I may not do a thing to it. A first novel is just that–an amateur’s attempt at writing a story that is predominantly autobiographical despite attempts to clothe it otherwise. If the basic premise is good and the storyline intriguing it has life in it. Yet how much more time and sweat do I have left for this?

And there are other parts to this story. That blasted tightness in the chest when reading J.’s words. The hope that the editing suggestions would get easier and perhaps gentler the longer I read. The realization that despite her stated appreciation of my ability, she was telling me it was not at all good enough. After read-through of the writing itself with edits, I felt first intrigued, then tired out. Then I felt the deep and irritating discontent seep into me, then the sense of doom that comes from fearing ultimate failure, and the thought blinding my mind in neon caps that no matter how hard I work, there will always be something that needs fixing.

And that overarching question came to the fore. Why bother writing at all? If it does not pass muster despite talent and hard work, if someone I so respect informs me it is not great quality, what then? More toil the next five years? Is there any guarantee it will be good enough then to snag an agent, perhaps be published? Since the fourth grade (when I garnered an award for writing and discovered writing’s intoxicating effects) I’ve spent my life working on the craft of writing. Sometimes submitting work and occasionally being published, reading my work at public readings, attending writers conferences and workshops, talking to other writers about their processes, reading books on writing and publishing. Tearing up countless attempts at mastery.

There is absolutely no guarantee any one will want to publish my writing or anyone else’s who is not already well-known.

I attended a couple of lectures at yet another writers conference this week. On the blackboard was: “Agents are our friends.” But they told us what I had already heard. Whose work is selected from a slush pile is random in that they never know what will stoke their curiosity, what will be deemed original and exceptional, what will be seen as marketable enough. Well, unless someone referred you to them or your work has been in literary journals of real note. There are just too many people sending manuscripts to them and limited time and staff.

Yes, they mean to support us in our quest for greater readership–it is to their advantage, as well. But who in that audience might be taken under their wings was a mystery. We all can name books that are published though poorly written or boring, then make a lot of money–and books that are excellent, make little and disappear. And millions of writers worldwide who strive to hone their craft yet don’t ever see a thing in print. It’s enough to stop anyone from wanting to be a writer.

Not writing doesn’t interest me, however. Habit alone dictates it after writing for well over fifty years. I didn’t find enough time or energy to intensely pursue publishing when raising five children and working, struggling as a single mother off and on. Now perhaps I do. All I know is that writing makes my blood run well. It sparks circuits of energy in my brain. It nourishes serenity and fulfillment. The work of writing opens up access to information about people, place, the very nature of creativity and the presence of God.  The actions of idea to hand to paper unveil new ways to experience the universe and our place in it.Writing is alchemy of a sort so potent that words have been able to change the course of history, heal, enlighten, entertain, educate, provoke, liberate. To be able to write and to read is revolutionary. I want always to be a part of it.

That heavy cloud settled a few days, then thinned. It has nearly vanished. When the discouragement creeps in I have to take a break from myself and pay attention to the bigger picture. My money was well-spent on J.’s expertise. I learned more than I expected. Now questions proliferate what I need and want to do now with my writing hours. I may revive Other Than Words once more–my unlikable female protagonist who was struck by tragedy still has good things to say. I might, instead begin a new novel–a title that popped into my head already has me plotting away. In the end I may stick other genres.

While I am at it, it might serve me well to re-read some of the best writing books I’ve accumulated. A few have stayed unopened; it’s possible within those pages I will gain more useful tips. But giving up has never been an option. Stories still arrive and allow me to tell them. This is why writers write, after all.

MISC. 8-11-12 032

(Thanks to brilliant as well as good-hearted J.M.)