work

My view from Jentel

I have arrived at the Jentel Artist Residency for my May 15-June 13 writer’s residency, and all I can say is: Holy smokes.

I’m attaching some photos to give a sense of the place; I will try to post more in the next month although it might not be until I’m home because I’m going to keep my head down and write as much as I can on this book thing I’m trying to make. Right now, I’m about doubled over with gratitude for the chance to be here. Thanks again to the Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award for this tremendous opportunity.

Here’s a look at where I am:

My beautiful writer’s studio:

Jentel writer's studios

Jentel writer’s studios

The writer's studio where I'll be for four weeks

The writer’s studio where I’ll be for four weeks

The view from my writing studio

The view from my writing studio

The living quarters, a gorgeous space that houses six residents:

Jentel living quarters

Jentel living quarters

IMG_0005

Jentel shared living room, with views–and a telescope!

 

Jentel kitchen

Jentel kitchen

Jentel residents' shared living space. Stairs go up to a loft library and sitting room.

Jentel residents’ shared living space. Stairs go up to a loft library and sitting room.

View from the bath

View from the bath

The Somerset Maugham room, with a view of Lower Piney Creek.

The Somerset Maugham room, with a view of Lower Piney Creek.

 

The dog will always bark

God damn dog is barking now and it is time to get to work anyways. … the amazing thing is that the work goes on. And one day it will be through. — John Steinbeck, from Working Days: The Journals of the Grapes of Wrath

I first read Steinbeck’s Working Days, the diary he kept as he wrote The Grapes of Wrath, many moons ago, when I first stumbled into this writing life in my late 20s. In rereading excerpts, I again found myself both fascinated and comforted by the mundane irritations and stunning insecurities that plagued Steinbeck as he, you know, WROTE A GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL. Of course he didn’t know he was writing A GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, and that’s the beauty of it. He was just writing — puzzling out characters and timing, figuring out which scenes he’d tackle next. The notes about his doubts and insecurities, as well as the complaints about visitors and interferences and the neighbors’ g-d dog, are among the most reassuring things I have read as a writer. Not because the book turned out to be A GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL but because of his persistence. Must go on, he writes after getting down what plagues him. Must work now. Might as well get to work. To work now.

That passage about the dog has stuck with me all these long years. In part this is because certain noises (barking dogs, leaf blowers, chainsaws, roaring trucks, clattering keyboards) drive me totally barking bananas, hitting my nerves in a weirdly primal way, making me want to screech and shake the trees of my habitat, hiss and chase and claw at the offending sound. I have since learned the wonders of high-speed tornado fans, earplugs, and headphones, but reading that a well-known writer struggled with noise made me feel less alone and crazy — a feeling I fight much of the time, as some (a lot) of us writers do.

Over time, I have come to think of Steinbeck’s dog more metaphorically. The dog is the day job, whining for you to take it out for a walk again. The dog is the rejection slip, pooping on your rug. The dog is your Inner Critic, snarling behind the fence. The dog is email and social media, yip yip yipping and biting your ankles. The dog is the blank page, wounded and yelping with a burr in its paw. The dog is envy. The dog is pettiness. The dog is white-hot fear. The dog is time, loping fast into the long distance. The dog, always barking, always keeping you from your day’s — your life’s — work.

Blocking this psychic barking is harder. There are no headphones (Sony, get on this, please). No fans on high will do the trick.

Some days will be bark-free; some days, the dog sleeps in the corner, sighing softly, chasing rabbits in its dreams. And there you are, bounding off into your imagination, unleashed.

Other days, well.

BARKBARKBARKBARKBARKBARKBARKBARK.

I wish I had tried-and-true tips, a handy-dandy checklist of how to quiet the noise. As with so much in writing, we have to figure out works individually. For me — and this is so bloomin’ obvious that of course I always forget it — it helps to write about it. Like, duh. Steinbeck’s journals are a model of this; they not only depict the struggle but also show how he worked through it. Write down the fears, the irritations, the questions. Get them out of your mind, onto the page. Let them go. Feel the tension dissolve as the dog slinks off into his corner.

Music’s good, too, something to distract the part of your brain that has zeroed in on the barking. Reading helps sometimes, going back over your own words, lulling yourself into a quieter state.

This doesn’t mean that we ever will have perfect quiet, the perfect setting or circumstances. To demand that is its own kind of dog, one who will go hungry.

We just need to find the point at which we can say: it is time to get to work anyways. Must go on. To work now.

Wishing everyone a creative, joyous 2015. To quote Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan: Be excellent to each other. And party on, dudes.

BC

The heart, ‘that bloody motor’

I’ve been wanting to sit down here in Blogsville and compose a new entry to keep my writing engine warm in what has so far been the frozen tundra of 2014, but I’ve been doing the proverbial spinning in my chair. Yesterday I started an entry about time and compression in fiction, which I’m wrestling with in a new story. But early on, I got bored with myself and my ruminations. The process of figuring out what would be “good” to write about felt cold, sterile, stupefyingly dull.

It got me thinking about why I set up this so-called blog in the first place: to give myself a defined space that, because of its weirdly public-private status, makes me work a little harder than my personal notebook. But I realized that I’ve lapsed into thinking too much about what to write, forcing myself to come up with a subject even when nothing comes to mind. Partly this can be a good thing; I need to push myself to keep working even when I don’t have the urge, or when I’m stuck or listless. But my recent pattern feels different. To narrow it to its most reductive, cliched state: I’m writing from my head instead of my heart.

Oh, the heart. I couldn’t help but think of that lovely passage from Salinger’s “Seymour: An Introduction”:

Do you know what I was smiling at? You wrote down that you were a writer by profession. It sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I had ever heard. When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion. Never. I’m a little over-excited now. Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? … I’m so sure you’ll get asked only two questions.’ Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions.

As much as I love this passage — it’s tacked to my bulletin board next to an Onion calendar headline — the older I get, the more I quibble with the “how easy” part. Were my stars out? Good heavens. Some days I’m not even sure the sun has risen. Writing my heart out? As if it’s breaking out of my chest, exposed to the world? Or until it’s squeezed empty like an old toothpaste tube? Yes, to both. But sometimes, before I can get the old girl back inside, to get back to regular old cardiovascular business, a bird swoops in, tears off a chunk in its beak, and flies away. Sometimes I can’t catch my breath as it tries to fill back up.

A more honest perspective: you will be able to say yes to these questions, but some days it will be unimaginably hard to do so. Some days you will write with boundless joy, your stars like chips of mica at the edge of your sky, your crimson heart as naked as Eve. But some days you will write in the dark, from the pit of your liver — because your heart? she can’t take it right now — and you will do it only to stay alive.

Funny, we don’t say, “I was writing my head out,” even though the head is the metaphoric place of imagination, presumably where our stories begin and flourish. But it is the heart — “that bloody motor,” as Grace Paley so wonderfully calls it in “A Conversation with My Father” — where we lodge desire, courage and fear, love and longing; and those are the parts that make a story live.

And so I must remember to return to my heart, dear reader, even when — especially when — I am terrified to haul it out, afraid that it will be tedious, frivolous, sentimental, bumbling.

Because what if it isn’t?

Spring, sprang, sprung

First, I must holler a mighty Congratulations! out to TW, who on March 1 successfully defended his thesis, Notebook, for his M.F.A. in Book Arts from the University of Alabama. Here is a digital scan of one version of his 50-edition handmade book: notebook tw. He will be posting more details soon on his website. Thus completes a wild adventure that spanned three years, two towns, and the unfailing support of family and friends. Thanks to all. I could not be more ecstatically proud of or happy for him.

So. Spring again, I see. Turned out to be quite the fallow winter here in Blogsville. Now that I’ve typed the word fallow, I’m stuck on it. I meant it initially only in the sense of inactivity, but of course it’s first meaning is related to farmland that is “plowed and harrowed but left unsown to restore its fertility” (New Oxford American Dictionary). Many writers use this word about their time between major projects, thinking of it as a restorative period. I wish I could reach that understanding about my own long uneventful stretches: to see them as beneficial — in fact, necessary — rather than as frustrating.

This past week was Spring Prep-Grade, er, Break at my school, and I had planned to squeeze in work on a short story, one I about which I had been taking notes. Here I am at the end of the break with two new pages … of crap. Ugh. That’s what happens, I suppose, by trying to “squeeze in” rather than “work on”; the latter takes time and intense focus that I can’t devote right now. (I knew this wasn’t going to work out, Semester.)

Writing two pages of crap, of course, is not wasted time. I know it’s not. I’ll figure it out when I’m ready to figure it out and no sooner. That’s the way this writing thing goes sometimes. Alas, such “failure” doesn’t help with my bluesy — nay, borderline morose — mood of late. Oh, the lack of spring in one’s step in the springiest of times! A most nettling (ha) irony. It’s not that I’m blind to the beauty and bursting forth around me. More like myopic, swaddled in a haze and befuddlement of my own making.

There are many factors at root, none of which I care to navel-gaze at here. There will always be factors. I suppose my frustration lies in my inability to see or move past those factors, on my tendency to allow them to build a nest and roost. On my tendency to broooooooood. (To betray my age and pop-culture-clogged brain, I just thought of Say Anything: Lloyd: Why can’t you be in a good mood? How hard is it to decide to be in a good mood and be in a good mood once in a while? Constance: Gee, it’s easy.)

These moody old moods are just part of my writing territory. The good news is, I know this terrain well, these old stomping grounds, these uneven highs and lows. I will traverse and stumble across them through all of the days that I am fortunate enough to be here — and with someone who will take my hand. Whether the sun is out or not, those uneasy clouds have their own beauty, don’t they? Yes, they do. When I finally remember to look up.

Another kind of swimming

Once upon a time, I used to be a swimmer. I was never all that fast, but I pulled in a few blue ribbons for backstroke on my town’s tiny swim team. In my late teens/early twenties, I worked as a lifeguard during college summers, when I taught swim lessons and got more interested in form than speed. Guards had to clock so many laps a week, and by midsummer, I would be in decent shape, logging around 1800-2000 meters every day or so. I’d hop in the lane, snap on my cap and goggles, duck down and push off underwater, taking a long pull and kick before breaking the surface and launching into a steady freestyle. As the summer progressed, my stroke grew stronger and more confident, my breathing deep and controlled. A constant battler of weight and diets, I felt almost athletic, almost graceful out there in the lane, immersed in my own underwater rhythms, counting pulls and breaths. I perfected a wicked flip-turn.

I tell this scintillating tale because I’ve been sitting here for a half-hour, tidying my dusty desk, running a computer backup, and staring out the window, taking in the happenin’ streets of rural Alabama (my neighbor just pulled in her trash bin AND our other neighbor’s bin). To push the swimming analogy, I guess you could say I’m treading water. Or dog-paddling. Just three months ago, I was in top shape, zipping up and down my little writing lane for hours at at time, six days a week. For these past three months of the semester, however, I have waded in up to my waist, splashing half-assedly at this so-called blog every few weeks. This morning, the Saturday of Thanksgiving break, I woke up determined to dive back in. I wanted to take off in full stroke, to churn up the white space with perfect form and grace and precision. Instead, I’m wheezing and panting midway through the first lap, feeling the amino acid burn, my arms spaghetti-sloppy, my kick anemic.  I lean on the tile gutter, huffing, feel the doughy lump of yesterday’s Indian leftovers in my cramping stomach.

Three months. That’s all it takes for my muscles to atrophy, the flab to form, to lose not just my breath but my confidence. The truth is, it doesn’t even take that long, and the longer I go, the harder it is to want to dive into that cold, shimmering expanse. It’s what I need to do — I know it — but too often exhaustion trumps all.

So here I am, dog paddling in the shallow end, in a flowered rubber cap and skirted tank suit, while other young, lithe writers zip past in their slim lycra t-backs. I bob in their churning wake, choking on the chlorine fumes, wondering if I shouldn’t take up another competitive sport. Like lawn darts. Or curling. Skee ball?

Here’s the thing, though: Dog-paddling is swimming, too. You can get from one side to the other just the same. It may not be as impressive or elegant or efficient, but maybe it doesn’t always have to be about those things. Maybe this visit to the pool is about the chance to feel water on your skin, to feel the gentle resistance against your limbs, to revel in your own buoyancy. From this pace, you can easily flip into a lazy sidestroke or buoyant backfloat (thanks, body fat!). In fact, from this slow-legged, ungainly pace, you can take in the whole scene: check out the hungover lifeguard with her chin in her fist, the kids monkey-climbing around the gutter in the deep-end, the best girlfriends making front-folded “George Washington” hairdos, the boys wobbling on each other’s shoulders for chicken fights. See the boy walking along the fence perimeter, dragging his fingers on the chainlink, singing to himself. Or the girl alone in the shallow end, walking the slick, black line as if it were a beam and she a dancer, for once a graceful gymnast, weightless, lost in a watery world of invention.

From dog-paddle to freestyle is not that far of a stretch. When you’re ready, just take a deep breath, lean forward, put your face in the water, and strike out. Be patient. It’ll come to you. For now, just keep moving. Just keep your head above water.

To-Do List, Item #15: “You know the escape”

1. Write a 7-day to-do list, like you do every week.

2. Fill the list with myriad job-related tasks. Grade, prep, read, meeting, read, submit, upload, email, grade, grade, grade, meeting, meeting. Watch your pen fill the page, bleed off the page, make your fingers bleed.

3. Every week, write this at the bottom of the page: WRITE.

4. Scratch off each task with heavy, black strokes of the pen to feel as if you’re getting somewhere, to quell the tremor of your stressed nerves. (Don’t think about next week’s to-do list, lurking as soon as this one’s scratched to hell.)

5. Notice, every week, before you crumple up the page, the one item at the bottom of the page that never gets scratched off.

6. Ask yourself: Why isn’t it at the top of the page?

7. Beat yourself up for awhile. That old record. Wallow in self-pity, really get in there and snuffle around in the muck of your self-absorption. Don’t think about the starving children, though! Don’t think about Syria or Libya, don’t think about grandparents losing their minds and bodies, about the jobless, don’t think about all  the things much bigger and more important than you! Nothing stops a good pity party like a reality check!

8. Stare out the window for awhile. Think about the hurricane about to lash the east coast. Wish for safety. Notice the leaves finally turning here in the South, yellow and red and orange, parachuting from branch to driveway. Fall, again. The noun and the verb. Too much symbolism out there in your yard.

9. It’s late October. Think of your father, 17 years gone now. It’s that time of year. It snuck up on you this time. You’d forgotten, in the way that’s not really forgetting, just tucked down in the corners of yourself, because you don’t have time to grieve right now.

10.  Think about how dark this list is. There you go again, depressing everyone! Make a joke, hurry!

11. Why don’t cannibals eat clowns? (Because they taste funny.)

12. Drink more coffee.

13. Here’s the thing about old records: You know what comes next.

14. Turn to the page (the blog, the whatever). Take pen to paper, fingers to keys. Write it out. Get it down, get it out.

15. Think of Mamet’s Redbelt: “You know the escape.”

16. Remember Anne Lamott’s advice: Lighten up, Francis.

17. Lighten up, Francis.

18. Look out the window again. Look outward. Notice something, just one thing, just one good thing. Here’s one: That mutable ashy sky, those lovely trees in transition. They don’t need you to describe them. They’ll get along just fine without you.

19. Hear your husband shuffling in socks on the wood floor of your home, happiest of sounds. Listen to it, feel the hum in your limbs.

20. Listen closer.

21. Listen better.

Ahem.

Oh, little blog. I haven’t forgotten you. Well, actually, I did, in that forgetting way that’s not really forgetting. You’re like that weird skin tag on my elbow about which I keep thinking, Yeah, I should get that checked. No offense.

Truth is, I’d much rather be jotting down rambly bits about writing. It’s November, which in semester-land means, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT’S HOLY, WHY DID I ASSIGN SO MANY PAPERS? Teaching. It’s nothing new to say that it can be a creativity-killer, but I’ll beat that poor old horse some more. On second thought, no. That’s boring. I’m so bored with talking about pedagogy et al that I could yank out my vocal chords and wing them across the quad.

I know, I know, it’s always a balance between paying-the-bills work (job-job) and writing (work). I say this all of the time, and it’s true, but I’ve lost the balance for the moment. I’m the fat kid on the teeter-totter once again, hanging lower, feeling the slitted gazes of others. (Ah, grade-school recess: the puke-inducing, scrape-the-skin-off-your-knees merry-go-rounds, those weird double-helix-looking jungle gym things that some kid always fell off of and broke his arm, the metal slides that burned the backs of your thighs…)

I’ve taken in my head (and sometimes aloud) to referring to myself by my last name: Okay, Chancellor: Get a grip. Okay, Chancellor, where’s your son-of-a-bitching purse? So, New Plan. Okay, Chancellor: You will write here with great frequency. First thing, before the day takes over, before the light of day if needs be. Give yourself the space for it. Type until something comes. This is how you write. This is how you write. This is how you write.

The X of Y, or something

During my first year of full-time teaching, my fiction writing of course took a hit. In those last days of spring semester, I was barely holding on, slogging with clumsy feet, clawing at my throat with an eye on the glimmer in the distant sand: summer writing time.

It’s a strange thing, though, to have a substantial — though ultimately limited — stretch of time before you. I spent part of May panicking, like, shit, shit, I only have X time to do XYZ and PDQ. Plus, it’s hard to return to the focus — that “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration,” as Elizabeth Bishop calls it — that new writing demands each time, especially when you’re scrubbing off the rust of months of neglect. I spun in my chair, my worst fears embedded in the blank screen: the summer was going to be a bust. Here I was, with the perfect conditions, everything I needed, and I couldn’t do it.

But come on, little peanut. Everything’s not going to get written in a summer. That’s not how it works, or at least not for me. I have to work consistently, year-long, even when many of those months are unproductive little bastards. When I reminded myself of that, and I switched off Radio KFKD (thanks, Anne Lamott!), the knots in my psyche finally unclenched a bit. I’ve done steady work, much of it messy and some of it total disaster, but some of it not half-bad. I feel all right as the summer days begin (alas) to grow shorter, as my mind drifts more frequently to thoughts of fall planning. Rather than flog myself over what I haven’t accomplished, I thought it might be a nice change to step back and see what I have done. Imagine that. Oh, age.

I didn’t set a specific goal for pages or word count, just more of a grunting Write More. I started a new novel (the one  I have been working on the last few years is in the drawer for the mo’) and am trying to get my story collection into better shape. Here’s the tally:

Novel X: 76 pages

Short-story Y (draft 1): 16 pages

Short-story Z: 7 pages (finished-ish)

Okay, okay, okay. Back to work.