notebooks

Dispatches from my window, or, adjusting the blinds

Early in the new year, I got up too early (after duking it out with my old pal Insomnia) and watched the sun rise. Squinting in the dawn light, I started writing in my notebook, a crucial activity that I had let slide in the past few months as I tumbled down the hole of work and living. Both my fingers and mind were stiff as I scratched at the page. I wrote, M Jan. 5, 2015, 6:30 a.m. Watching the sun rise through the bare oaks. The sky gray as a dog’s belly, bare trees falling out of silhouette and into being. This is not my land but it is my view now. Just a little description, no big deal, but for some reason it clicked for me, and I decided then that I would do this every morning. Every single day, I would start the day here, looking out the same window, the same exact view, before I am fully awake, before anything else (except coffee, natch). I would do it first, no matter how much the day’s demands pounded at my door.

And so I have. For the past 41 days, I have gotten my coffee, opened the blinds (even when it is still dark), sat down, opened my notebook, picked up a pen, and started writing. I often begin just by staring out the window, trying to note what’s out there and get down a few details. I mentally termed this Dispatches from my Window. Among the scintillating things I’ve noted on various days: Lopsided moon still hanging over sky to west. Hoof prints in neighbor’s grass. Sky whitens, tinged with orange low behind trees. Trash bins hunkered on side of road, ripe with neighbors’ lives.  Clear husk of a spider, hanging from old web, trapped in storm window. Rawness of winter trees, so exposed and still. Sky pale blue, clean as a plate. Cats running loose, investigating drainage holes, crouching for mice.

Now, who the heck knows if I will ever use these details. Maybe I can cherry pick or pluck them out whole; we’ll see. Or maybe they’ll spark something else. Actually, they already have. Though I begin by detailing what’s outside, I have found that the act of writing and describing leads me inside, including to the novel that I’m working on. At one point I wrote, Rain-soaked free newspapers lay in driveways like dead fish. Makes me think of butcher shop at [parents’] store, waxy white paper, slabs of meat. Speaking of stores: maybe get into some of those shops more [in new novel]. More than half of the entries so far include notes and questions about characters, brief scenes and possibilities. I’ve actually done some good outlining and the ever-amorphous “figuring out” in those notes, which I hope to bring into the writing later.

Of course, not every morning is particularly productive. I’m mostly comatose during the first cup of coffee, doing all I can not to drool. Some days, my stressed brain is in overdrive, thoughts jumping and spinning until I fall into a kind of paralyzed nausea, my pen frozen above the page. When that happens, I’ve started getting out of my chair and adjusting the blinds for a new angle. The first time I did this, the metaphor practically boxed me on the ears, and I started laughing. Adjust your blinds,  you worried ol’ nincompoop. Take a deep breath and refocus. Get out of your pesky head and look around. Look outward. Tweak the light and get a new perspective.

Such note-taking doesn’t supplant the writing-writing, for which I am struggling to find time right now. But it helps clear the path to it, whacking away at the weeds of inactivity and doubt and fear. At the very least, I open the blinds and sit down to the page first, and that reminds me of what it means to put writing first. Then, I peer through the slats to see what in the world might be out there.

Notebooks (Capital N)

I’m trying of late to keep a better writing notebook. I assign students a dedicated writing notebook most semesters, 5 entries a week, knowing that this is one of the best ways to generate and/or develop material. The entries can be raw, messy, or fragmented, self-generated or responses to exercises, but the point is to sharpen observation skills, to tone and build the writing muscle. I see some great work emerge from these dedicated Notebooks with a capital N.

But in the secret guilt-ridden irony with which many writing instructors are familiar (we’re not writing as we insist on the importance of writing!), I had let my own notebook lapse. It wasn’t even a lower-case n; it just wasn’t happening. I would turn to it only in moments of desperation, late at night, trying to tease out what was at the root of my dark or saddened or frustrated state of mind. Time and again, these outpourings helped me get at the source of the wound; the act of writing in my notebook was the salve and bandage. Like, duh. It’s so freaking obvious, until it isn’t. So many times I’m like a potty-training toddler in this writing life. I will pee myself again. Just wait.

Anyhow, my notes thus far are pretty scratchy, bits gleaned during walks or out at a restaurant: sunlit raindrops hanging from a spindly branch; burnt-orange clouds through a stand of bare oaks; a little girl playing in the backroom of her family’s diner; a daughter up in a tree pulling down holiday ornaments while her father watched from below. None of these notes are particularly strange or, on the surface, even that noteworthy. But I have learned over the years that I often find ways to use those tiny, seemingly insignificant bits in my fiction. (I recently pulled some descriptive details from this blog and used them in my novel.)

Even more important, for me anyway, is that the more I do it, the more I turn my writing brain “on.” Active observation is work; it is much easier to shut the writer’s mind off, to go about your day and task without really looking, to slide right back into the “default setting,” as David Foster Wallace called it.. What I have discovered is that even before writing it down, just by noticing, something sparks in me.

Example A: that simple raindrop on the branch. It had been raining here for about a week straight, the skies obstinately gray, unusual for this part of the country, even in winter. It had just “snowed” — flurries that didn’t stick but shut down the university nonetheless — so I took to walking the neighborhood. The sky broke, and the sun hit that branch, and I nearly bent in half with the beauty of it, with whatever it touched off inside of me.

It’s nothing new that capital N Nature can do this for us (greetings, Romantics and Transcendentalists!). In prose and verse, such imagery can very quickly become problematic: banal, cliche, too direct. In John Gardner’s famous “barn” description exercise from The Art of Fiction (“Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war.  Do not mention the son, or war, or death”), Gardner cautions against obvious correlatives, that “the images of death and loss that come to [the writer] are not necessarily those we expect.” Agreed.

But in these initial notes, in the first moment of observation, I don’t yet understand what the branch made me see; that is for later, when/if I decide to give it to a character or scene, when I ask it to bear story weight. What work do I want this image to do? What does it add to character/story/tension/etc?

Right now I only know that I saw it. I looked at it, even marveled at it. I didn’t miss it, and I wrote it down. And that is enough for now.