writing process

Revolutions

Me [waltzing in, whistling]: Gone from the blog for more than a year? Don’t know what you’re talking about. There never was a Time stamp. Nope. Wrong! Sad! Enoguh with the FAKE NEWS!!!!!! ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE! Believe me, I am a Excellent Writer and know Exactly how to use capitals for emphasis. Your pour liars and you have low IQ and very small boats.

Ugh, just typing that in jest nearly made my head burst into flames.

Yes, I’ve been away from the blog for Reasons, as the kids say, if they even say this anymore. I don’t know. I’ve been away. It’s been more than a year since my last post, and longer than that since I wrote anything besides links and announcements. That depresses the hell out of me, although I’m trying to be kinder to myself these days. Okay, so I slacked on my all-things-writing blog. Sue me. Oh, what’s that you say, you’re too busy suing the US government for putting babies in cages and banning people based on their religion and purging voter rolls? My bad.

Obviously, we have bigger fish to fry.

I started this post on July 4, a day when Americans usually are off floating in pools and snarfing hot dogs and apple pie, and I gave up at about this paragraph. I’ve never been so conflicted about my country and a large swath of its voting population, even though I know our history; I know the blood and shame that runs from sea to shining sea. Still, I have always believed we strived to be good, to move forward from that past and become better. I’ve always traced that long arc of justice like a talisman. Now it seem we’re sliding ass backward into the worst version of ourselves. People are reveling in their ugliness and ignorance and violence, propelled by the Orange Malignancy in Chief and his craven, morally bankrupt congressional enablers. It’s terrifying, enraging, stupefying, mind-numbing, and exhausting. The chaos has skewed time, too. Hours feel like days, weeks like months, as if the Earth morphed into a galactic tether ball, swatted and spun until we’re all careening into doorjambs and trying not to barf onto our shoes. Or someone else’s shoes.

And holy ever-loving hell is it hard to write.

So, in the ensuing days after I started writing this and couldn’t, I knew I was spinning out. I need to make some changes. I deactivated Twitter and Facebook (I kept Instagram because I find it less taxing, even tho’ yeah, it’s still owned by FB). Twitter was hardest, partly because I’d gotten addicted to the speed of information and as a place find a salve among like-minded people (I’m not crazy, right? That was completely f-ing bonkers, right? This is not normal, right?), not to mention the savagely witty, smart, literary people who took the edge off. In fact, when I first deactivated, I thought I could log back on in a few weeks if changed my mind. Nope, all my followers and my follow list are gone. Whoops. But it’s for the best. (It helps to remind myself that the Orange Malignancy has turned the platform into his bully pulpit, a place in which people of color and women are terrorized, one that equalizes and normalizes white supremacists and their sympathizers.) Plus, it wasn’t really an outlet for my rage; all it did was send me reeling deeper into anxiety and depression. Now I can call my reps without seizing up every time I log in. I can still volunteer and donate and protest. I’m a longtime news junkie, and we subscribe to/support a number of print outlets. My head is a little clearer since logging off, though my heart is still a mess. We’re still spinning, spinning, spinning, with no end in sight except for a glimmer in the distance (NOVEMBER 6, MIDTERM ELECTIONS, YO).

Perhaps it’s not a surprise, with all this whirling, that I’ve had the word revolution on my mind. Obviously, it has a sense of rebellion or political overthrow (yes, please) but also of dramatic change or transformation as well as turning or rotation—as in a wheel, or the earth in orbit around the sun.

I first started this blog in 2010, almost exactly eight years ago. I was not yet forty years old, I was living in rural Alabama and teaching at my first academic job, and I needed an outlet to keep me honest in my writing as I struggled with time, doubts, anxiety/depression, and enormous stress. If I couldn’t immerse enough to write fiction for several months a year, if I failed at not one but two novel drafts (gulp), I could at least keep writing in small ways, pushing myself onward with rough mini-essays and ramblings about my writing and reading life. Yes, I was creating an “online writing presence” (it smells like vanilla beans, pencil shavings, and despair), but I also discovered a genuine solace and pleasure in this weirdly public-private space with my mostly imaginary audience (except you! you’re real!), even if it was squirmy to put messy work up, even if some days I spun in the chair as I tried to untangle the mental knots.

I never really saw these digital scribbles as a social activity. No offense, but I didn’t expect or need a response or comments or followers (though, yes, sure, it was nice to receive a note or connect with someone afterward). No, it was the act of writing, a purposeful puzzling with words and meaning and understanding, that brought me a psychic and physical release, a jolt of joy and of accomplishment. Knowing the work was rough and unfinished and potentially riddled with (gasp) typos taught me not to be too precious about “being done” and just revel in practice and play. I would finish my little post, click Publish, and leave the desk knowing I had showed up. And that was not nothing. It was enough to get me to the next day, to remember that writing mattered to me on more than a published-work level. Writing it out, getting it down helped kept me rooted amid all my internal lurching. Yet I strayed from this old place as other demands crept in and I let my energy get siphoned off into other forms of media, forgetting that carving this time for writing practice was one of the ways I was able to write and finish books in the first place.

Now I am pushing into my late forties, I live in urban North Carolina, I teach in a supportive academic environment, and I have published two books of fiction with a third in the early stages—and still I struggle with time, doubts, anxiety/depression, and stress (though lord help me, I have fewer and fewer f*cks to give about the petty stuff). Big personal transformations have collided with large national and global ones. So many revolutions around the sun, countless turns on my own little wheel. I’m dizzy just thinking of it. Technology evolves and accelerates, making spaces like blogs seem quaint or obsolete. I keep turning back and looking at old posts, already squinting at the person and writer I was, wondering who I’ll be in the next revolution.

I know this: I want to be here, writing on this strange scrolling space and in the world, even if I stagger my way through. I want to get grounded, brace myself, push back until we’re moving forward again. And I want you—imaginary readers, real-life compatriots, other writers and artists— here with me. Spin your magic. Hold fast to what’s right and true as we grope our way through the dark.

Here is the day

One of the first lines I wrote in the wake of The Vote was “I have lost my words.” I had gone mute with grief and rage and fear. But I had to teach, to stand in front of young scared faces who looked to me to tell them the world would not end. I tried. I found some, cupped them in my palm like pears, sliced and shared what I could.

Weeks have passed, and I still can’t find them. This scares me, since I know, I know, I know: words are the way out. I have known that since I was a girl who slept and woke with books in her hands, my mind and heart on fire. My faith in words has not failed, just my faith in my will. And in the world.

As I sit down to the page now, all I can think of is an old tip on how to write well: Go small. To the short words, those with one beat. Their strength lies in their good bones. I think of a prompt from those same years: Write a scene (or more) with all one beat words.

So I turn to them now, the small, lone, bright ones. I get low, slash through the brush and weeds and lo! There, like lost coins lodged in the dirt. I claw them out, dust them off, watch them glint in the sun. They smell of stars and mint. I scuff their curves with my thumb. They burst, tart as a bell chime, on my tongue. I taste their punch and hiss, their thrust and twang.

Here are some that I clutch hard as we ride out the last days of this rough and dour year:

Fire
As in breathe, go through, hair on, set the world on. Light. It. Up.
As in stoke: for warmth, to cook, to share.
As in The Fire Next Time, The Fire This Time, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, The Mind on Fire. Seek those who write their truths, and take heed.

Rise
As in, Stand. Don’t back down. Know your rights. Know what’s right. Know the facts, and that facts count. Stand with those you know and those you don’t. Hold them up when their knees go weak. Cling to them when yours do.
As in, Wake up. This is real. This is ours now.
As in to the test. Know your strengths. You’ll need them. We all will.
To the surface. Gasp for air. A space to breathe. Float on your back. Watch the sky and clouds and rain, the moon and stars. Then get back to work.
As in the sun will. Look: here is the day. Meet it. Some days you can’t. You just can’t. Oh, love, it’s fine. Hang on. We got you.

Art
As in, write and read prose and verse and script. Words that for me mean pray. The Bad One and his ilk shun this life of the mind and heart as if it is dull, a bore and a chore, when those of us who write and read know: here is where we seek and find hard and good truths. Here is where we find joy. Here is grace and hope. Trust in these acts, for the self, for the world.
As in make. Make films (big screen, small screen), make plays, make sets. Draw, paint, sculpt, print, glaze. Waltz, leap, spin. Bang a drum, sing, pluck strings. Teach and learn. Make waves.

Earth
As in, What on? For real. What the f*ck have we done?
As in dirt. Where we dig and plant and grow.
As in our home. Home to land, sky, seas, lakes, trees, air, beasts, fish, Home to homes, streets, farms, work where we live, die, love, fly, ride, bike, walk, hop, skip, dream, hope. Home we must save.

Heart
As in: Take! You are not alone. The world can crack this red heart of yours, but it can heal it, too. The arc is long. The fight is hard. Chin up, Love. Look back at those who blazed the way. Look now at your feet on the path, at the ones next to you, old and young. Look up. Keep on.
As in, love. As in the greatest of these is. We’re not dumb fools, we who have faith in love. To love is a grand act full of risk and hope and fear. Its wild force —how it wounds and heals, how far we’ll go in its name—is at the root of much great art. Say it loud to those who need to hear it: I love you. You with your flaws, you with your charms, you with your scars. You, you, you.
As in, not hate. To the Bad Man and his vile dolts: you will do much harm, or try to, in the name of hate. Its force is strong, too. But we will stop you. There are more of us. For god’s sake, love wins. (You would know this if you read.)
As in with your whole. All of it. To the edge of what you think you can bear, and one step more.

Beauty
Not a one beat word, but I can’t think of its match, not one that holds the same sense of art, god, thanks, good, and joy at once. At times, beauty is plain: the sky on fire as the sun slides out of the sky, a bare tree at dusk, a thumb on a cheek. For me, it’s best when it comes by chance, when we have to peer past what we know to see it: a man on shift who runs to a sick guest, kneels in puke to hold her head and hand; a shared smile on a train; a drop of dew on a bent branch. Some days, these can bring me to my knees, a bright hot bloom in my chest. We must look hard for them in dark days. They are there, even in the dark. Look, and look, and look. Share them. Keep them close.

That’s all I have for now. But just this act, this search for small words, brought forth more far more than I knew it would.

From my heart to yours. I can’t wait to see what you do.

BC

(pssst For those who like to keep count, there are four words up there (at least that I see) that break the short-word rule: surface, alone, greatest, and beauty. This does not mean the rest of the words are the right or best ones; I’m could find more apt ones, clean it all up, cinch it tight. But as a prompt, it was good work and made me test and push past my first urge. Try it!)

Joy outside the door

And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips/Bidding adieu — John Keats, “Ode on Melancholy”

August. You again. I lamented your presence a few years back, and I stand by it. This year you also coincide with a hellacious US political sh*tshow featuring an overtly racist, sexist, xenophobic, hate-mongering, spray-tanned stinkbomb of a presidential candidate (not to put too fine a point on it). In short: Oh, joy.

Actually, it’s that short word snarkily employed up there — joy — that I’ve found myself ruminating on amid my late-summer anxiety and despair, and not in an eye-rolling way. Rather, I’m thinking about joy’s relationship to melancholy — thus the Keats. (To clarify, by melancholy, I’m not referring to clinical depression, only the temporary state of “having the blues” or “the blahs,” or “being out of sorts.” States of which, by the way, I currently am in. See: August. And the Cheetos candidate. Which is an insult to Cheetos.)

Anyhow, as I often do, I started with the word itself, perusing the OED in high nerd mode. Joy has a vividness, ebullience, and fleetingness that Happiness lacks. Joy is kinda like Happiness’s plucky older cousin (NOT to be confused with Glee or Bliss. Nobody wants those f*ck-ups at the reunion; they’ll only end up naked in the pool). Joy swings by the house on a lark with a fresh batch of chocolate-chips and a bottle of your favorite wine and daisies in her hair. You’ve been waiting by the window and fling open the door as she skips up to you. But, as ol’ Keats intimates, Joy’s on her way out the door as fast as she screeched into the driveway. With a wave and a blown kiss, she hops back on her moped, sunglasses flashing in the waning light of day. Watching her go, you want to hold her radiant perfection in your two hands. But then, she burns rubber, baby, and all you can do is watch the tires smoke, nibble a cookie, and hold the door frame for balance.

To seek a permanent state of joy is impossible, if not idiotic, unless you’re a Golden Retriever. The joy of joy is in its ephemeral nature (uh-doy, as my tween self would say). And there’s something, well, a bit embarrassing about an adult seeking joy, as if it is a simpleminded or insipid or sentimental pursuit. There’s nothing hip about Joy. She’s a little goofy, naive, even. Yes. She is. And maybe we need a few more conscious doses of her, especially when faced with so much rage and violence and fear in the world.

And I do mean conscious. It strikes me as I write this that some of my greatest moments of joy come when I’m writing, usually when something in a story reveals itself — the joy of clarity, of discovery. It also comes from the intensity of focus on words and sentences, trying to render them both logical and beautiful. Just writing this simple post has got my brain firing in a way it doesn’t when I’m passive, a mere recipient of my emotions. Here, I’m making conscious choices. I’m awake. I’m alive. I’ve flung open the door, and there it is: joy.

I’ve written before about humor and tragedy, an abiding interest of mine, and I guess I’m beating a similar drum. (Humor is Joy’s boisterous brother with the unlaced high tops, cracking wise over the cheese cubes). Joy likely won’t banish melancholy, and it shouldn’t (Melancholy’s tempestuous children are Art and Beauty). Anger serves an important purpose; sometimes we are right to be afraid. We have serious work to do, and joy won’t solve problems, or fight inequality, or make change. Yet joy can be part of the emotional equation, too. Like love and hope, joy can be trangressive, if we remember to look for it, if we remember to open the door.

Marking time

***

Is it okay to be me? … the answer was yes often enough that I went ahead and became her: the writer of plainspoken prose who would not shut up about her grief.”–from Dear Sugar, “The God of Doing it Anyway”

***

Today is the day my father died. On this day, twenty years ago, his heart up and stopped in the ICU, four days after falling ill with what we thought was the flu. Today, like every year, I mark it by the markers of fall: porch pumpkins, yellow and red leaves rusting on still-green lawns, yards trumped up like graveyards, cobwebbed and skull-strewn. Today, as every year, I wonder what to do or say with this private grief that spans two decades, that morphs with each year, rising and falling like a tetchy barometer. What’s there to say about it after all this time? And who wants to hear about it again? Not me. I want to be done.

But that’s not how it goes, it turns out. It turns out, the grief sticks around, showing up on my doorstep each year, holding out its pillowcase, begging me for an offering. Many years, I don’t open the door. Turn off the porch light, hide inside.

Today, because it’s a “big year,” a big fat marker, I suppose I feel obligated to say something, to commemorate, to note it officially: today he would have been 72, he would have been gray and bald and funny and irritating and argumentative and giant-hearted. He would have been fixing things, always fixing, Mr. Fix-It, as it says on the bench that commemorates him at the ballpark in my hometown, where new generations of Little Leaguers dart past with their stale nachos and sodas from the snack bar whose finicky ice machine he fixed and fixed and fixed.

But he couldn’t be. Every year, that fact stays fixed.

And I can’t fix it, either. Not with words, not with stories, not with memories.

But here I am, anyway. Trying to make sense of the insensible through words, through the world of language.

This year, I am struggling to find my words. All I can get at are questions: Twenty years–how is that possible? Who would he have been now? Who would we have been together?

Next year will be better. No milestone, no marker. I’ll open the door more easily, hand out Dum Dums to baby superheroes. I won’t have to think yet of the next marker, five years from now: the year I’ve lived longer without him than with him. I have some time to forget.

Today, twenty years on, stumbling to find words of my own, I thought I’d let poetry, quotes, and images do the talking.

Here’s to you, Alan Lee Chancellor (1942-1995): Beloved Father and Husband, In Our Hearts Always, as it says on your grave marker, our final note, as if that could capture all the wondrous, confounding, unknowable parts of you. Our Mr. Fix-It: hope things are good in the Big Garage in the Sky.

***

Dad, 1965

Dad, 1965, at a house in Berkeley, CA (I think).

Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same.—  from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman

 ***

Dad and me, 1993 or so, rockin’ the outfits, at home in Sedona, AZ.

…This morning I couldn’t get up.
I slept late, I dreamed of the single
sheet of paper, which I never managed to reach
as it stuttered and soared over the grass
and a few flowers, so that I woke
with a sense of loss, wondering who
or what I had to mourn besides
my father, whom I no longer mourn,
father buried in the earth beneath grass,
beneath flowers I trample as I run.
— from “In Dreams,” by Kim Addonizio
***

Dad, 1995, his final Father’s Day. We made the tie with my nephew’s baby footprints. (My nephew, now a gorgeous, brilliant junior in college.)

I buried my father

in the sky.

Since then, the birds

clean and comb him every morning

and pull the blanket up to his chin

every night…

— from “Little Father” by Li-Young Lee

Maps and legends

Oh, little blog, I’ve neglected you so. If you were a garden, you’d be a shriveled, gasping mess of brown stems and dry soil that loose cats have turned into a litterbox. Oops.

As usual when I sit down here after an absence, I’m all over the place, squirming and twitchy, struggling to make order out of my disordered thoughts, coherence from chaos. My tumult this time is in part because I have literally been all over the place of late. This year has thrummed with newness: new job, new city, new book coming out, new draft of new book under the belt. Since May, I’ve traveled across or touched down in eight states, including maneuvering a clodhopper of a moving truck through rush-hour Atlanta traffic during record heat. All of this has been wonderful, fortunate news, every last crumb of it, even the ATL at rush hour.

But I’m also reeling, disoriented. In my new city, I have to map every errand, every restaurant outing, and even my walks around the neighborhood. I’ve taken more than one wrong turn (even though we adopted the motto “no wrong turns”). When I get lost, I pull over and pinch back tears at the frustration of missing a turn AGAIN, of not recognizing street names or buildings or skylines. At the same time, my internal map is something of a palimpsest, onion-skinned, with scratches and traces of my past rising beneath. In my new streets, I see the places I know, where I’ve been and what I’ve left behind. I sink colorful thumbtacks into their familiar, soft cork spaces to make myself feel lodged, safe. Simultaneously I miss them, wistful and melancholy for what is no longer there, for what I have to let go.

Come to think of it, the whole moving-to-a-new-place thing feels a little like — wait for it! — fiction writing.

At first, every story is a sprawling unknown, a big blank page of a world. You land in this alien story place because something good lured you here: a voice, maybe (As a child, she slept with the cats), a word (gristle? apple butter?), or an image, say of an old woman digging in her garden and cursing at the neighbor’s cat. But who the heck is she? Where is she? What the hell kind of tree is that? Who knows! Not you! Nothing makes sense. You have no idea what you’re doing here or how you’ll ever figure it out. You drive in circles, spin your wheels.

But then you spend a little more time in the story. You get out of the car, shuffle down the avenue of its particulars. You look around. You look closer. The tree, what could it be? Mesquite? So maybe we’re out West — maybe northern Arizona again. Look again. Look closer. That woman digging in the garden next to the mesquite and cussing out the cat? Let’s see. Maybe she’s recently retired from her job as a grocery store manager and lost her own cat recently. You notice her hair, yanked back into a messy bun. She’s younger than you first thought. Late forties, early fifties. Why is she alone? Where’s her family?

You wander around in the opening scene, getting down the details of the yard, the physical struggle of digging in dry dirt with a bent spade splintered along the handle. You’ve done this before, this wandering, in the last story, and the story before, and the one before that. You know these mean streets. It hits you then: Daughter, gone. Dead? No, not dead. Just grown, moved away. Empty nest for a single mom. Okay. Okay. Recently retired woman who’s newly grown daughter has left her alone, feral cat driving her nuts. Thumbtack there and there. What else? What’s the engine? What could happen? What about that next door neighbor, owner of the cat?

New scene: Woman — at wit’s end because of cat, lonely, hands covered in garden soil — bangs on neighbor’s door. The door opens. And who might this be?

There. You’ve got the barest sketch of a map, a legend penciled in the corner. Fold it, put it in your pocket, and take it with you when you step out the front door and explore more of this place. Soon you won’t need it. Soon you’ll walk out the door and know where you’re going. Eventually, you’ll find your way.

Final days at Jentel: Draft 1, Done!

Yesterday, in my fourth week at Jentel, with three days left in my residency, this happened…

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Draft 1: Done! Clocking in at about 250 pages (77,500 words), about 150 of them written at Jentel. It must be official if it’s in dry-erase marker.

…while I was working here:

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The Sunset writer’s studio at Jentel.

So today, I did this to celebrate…

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Lake DeSmet, about 5.5 miles from Jentel up Lower Piney Creek Road. That fine little bike’s name is Genevieve; she belongs to the awesome writer and artist Jill Foote-Hutton, who was kind enough to let me borrow her.

…knowing that I still have lots and lots of work to do to before the book is actually finished.

Still, this place…

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View from Jentel, looking toward Lower Piney Creek Road.

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The endless permutation of clouds and sky.

…has been a little bit of magic, and I…

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Walking out on “The Road.”

… am forever indebted and grateful.

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Interview with Prairie Schooner

I spoke with the good, good folks over at Prairie Schooner about the Book Prize for my collection, When Are You Coming Home?, which will be released this fall. Among other things, I talk about a visit to the optometrist. Because, sure.

Here is the interview if you’re so inclined. And submit to the prize by March 15! Because boy howdy, you never know.

And here is a link to the giddy ol’ blog post after I first found out about the prize.

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.

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

I’m delighted at you

That title is the latest amusing pronouncement from my friend’s adorable two-year-old, whom I got to see yesterday via the wonders of Facetime. I found myself laughing even after we hung up, until my stomach seized up, until it had nothing at all to do with a child’s charming phrasing. I haven’t been laughing a lot of late, given the state of the news (see yesterday’s post), and a much-needed moment of levity unleashed something else: hard, uncontrolled laughter, a strange kind of catharsis.

This got me thinking about how much humor is bound up with tragedy, both in life and in writing. I know that isn’t a new or particularly profound observation, yet I still find it arresting. For example, just this morning, I was on another long-distance call with a dear friend whose family is grieving the sudden loss of a close friend. She told me that after the funeral, family and friends converged on a local bar, where they told funny remembrances about their beloved girl and found themselves laughing hysterically, ducking aside to cry for a moment, and then coming back to laugh some more. Similarly, nineteen years ago, my father died suddenly after a three-day illness; hours after I walked out of the hospital into the glaring light of a world that kept moving without him, my family and I proceeded to watch Tommy Boy (starring David Spade and Chris Farley), possibly one of the stupidest movies every made. For 97 minutes, we laughed ourselves sick, keeled over onto our knees, gasping for air. In a newsroom, in the wee hours when editors are trying to get the paper to bed, you will hear some of the worst jokes known to humanity (as editors work on the worst news, perpetrated by humanity). In all of those circumstances, no one is forgetting about grief; the laughing is part of the grief. Humor, dark and light, is one of our ways through tragedy, even if it feels disruptive or transgressive or inappropriate. Especially then. After all, physiologically, laughing isn’t much different from crying– just a quick hitch from one to the other. Unhinged laughter wondrously combines both.

And so it is in storytelling. After all, theater’s tragedy and comedy masks, seeming opposites, are depictions of the same face. This isn’t to say that all stories must blend the two, but good stories often work in more than just one mode. Something offsets the comedic or dramatic; I think of this as the “counterweight.” Dramatic stories can find balance with humor but also in other moments of lightness– “breathing spaces,” along the lines of how Aristotle envisioned tragedy’s choral rests. The counterweight in comedic writing needn’t be tragedy or heavy sadness, but again, something makes us stop laughing, suck in our breaths, pause. On both sides of the tragedy-comedy writing face, we want complexity, a fuzzier line between those so-called disparate emotions.

Of course, if it fits with a story, humor can be one of the greatest tools a writer has. This includes satire and absurdity, but also humor that intertwines with the serious. I’m a fan of George Saunders for his ability to make us laugh and weep in the same story. Here’s what he says in a recent excerpt of an interview in The New Yorker:

What I’ve come to realize is that, for me, the serious and the comic are one and the same. I don’t see humor as some sort of shrunken or deficient cousin of “real” writing. Being funny is about as deep and truthful as I can be. When I am really feeling life and being truthful, the resulting prose is comic. The world is comic. It’s not always funny but it is always comic.

In The Poetics, Aristotle says that tragedy includes a purgation of emotion for the audience — catharsis — through the effects of pity and fear. In modern writing terms, I think of pity as sympathy or understanding, and fear as terror/horror but also worry. Nowhere does Aristotle mention humor in this mix, but I believe that humor can be a crucial means of access to deeper emotions. Just as with crying, laughing opens us up, makes us vulnerable for emotion to sneak in. While we recognize crying as a way to release emotions, laughing is a surprise, the old cross-double cross, a sucker punch in the gut. Humor is both the way in and the way out.

Speaking of exits (which we weren’t): I wish I had a kicky way to end this or could have been kickier all the way through — practice what I’m a-preaching in the ol’ humor department. Alas, I’m still tonally off, my voice flat with sadness and stiff with lack of practice.

Tonight: I have some delightfully stupid movies to watch. Tomorrow: try again.