writing process

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.

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.

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.

We Are Go

August? AGAIN? I’m starting to think I don’t understand how time works.

Anyhoots, here I am. I’ve been fairly MIA this summer from ye ole blog town, and the Intertubes in general, in major part because I was neck-deep in another kind of writing. That is, I was writing a novel. Which I finished.

I actually finished the draft in late July. I initially thought that in my euphoria, I would hop on here and go bananas– like, type in all caps or use Comics Sans or something. And in truth, I was euphoric, but quietly so, down deep, a strange quantum sort of humming. That initial moment felt so intensely private that I was afraid to voice it even in the space of my room. Still feels that way a little. So, I’ll cut this short by noting for the record: Draft 1: 370 pages, 97,528 words. Am in process of sending to readers for Round 1. Terrifying.

My euphoria found an outlet instead in the Mars Curiosity Rover landing on August 5. Holy Cats! TW and I sat glued to NASA TV starting at like 11 p.m. Central time and late into the night. That was one of the best dramatic moments I have ever witnessed. Here, watch it again:

I love this video because it cuts in the real-time reactions of the Blue Shirts, those immensely talented science folks at NASA, as they learn that their gorgeously complicated, seemingly impossible feat worked. They did it. Whoever edited that video with the animation understands storytelling: it’s all in the people’s faces, their bodies, their reactions. Wonderful.

After those wild eruptions of joy, of course, things at NASA and the JPL settled down. As awesome as it was, the EDL (Entry, Descent, Landing) was only the first part of the mission. The scientists immediately started gathering data and examining it. They ran precise, slow checks on the safety and health of the rover. They updated software. They cautioned patience and mapped out the long journey ahead for Curiosity. This wasn’t to detract from the success, only to remind themselves of the larger mission.

Am I making a connection to writing? Oh, why the heck not, even though it seems beyond narcissistic to see myself in a planetary landing. Of course writing the first draft of a novel is not a feat on par with landing an SUV-sized rover on Mars. It isn’t. Yet, in those scientists’ faces, I do recognize, on a much smaller scale, the sense of joy and wonder at my own little EDL, which is then tempered by the recognition that much of the work still lies ahead, that it will demand patience and careful study and steadiness as I rove through this newly discovered world.

Mission Control, we are go for Draft 2.

These aren’t the droids: The feint of fiction

Confession: I recently re-watched Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope and Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back — or as I call them, Princess Leia Buns and Princess Leia Braids. Much to TW’s chagrin, I now have been walking around the house imitating Obi-Wan’s Jedi mind trick, complete with that awesome hand sweep: These aren’t the chips you’re looking for. These aren’t the ice cream sandwiches you’re looking for. I also asked him, “Don’t you have a Boba Fett doll?” He stared at me. “It’s not a doll.” I think he’s regretting his decision to invite me to that particular viewing party.

Aside from making me remember that I rode my Gold Fever Huffy (hello, handlebar tassles!) down to the one movie theater in my small Arizona town to stand in line to see it, that droid scene has made me think about fiction-writing and all of its myriad trickeries.

I really should just post Tim O’Brien’s wondrous essay “The Magic Show” here and be done with it. Seriously. Here’s one passage: “For a writer, and for a reader, the process of imaginative knowing does not depend upon the scientific method. Fictional characters are not constructed of flesh and blood, but rather of words, and those words serve as explicit incantations that invite us into and guide us through the universe of the imagination. Language is the apparatus—the magic dust—by which a writer performs his miracles. Words are uttered: ‘By and by,’ Huck says, and we hear him. Words are uttered: ‘We went tip-toeing along a path amongst the trees,’ and we see it. Beyond anything, I think, a writer is someone entranced by the power of language to create a magic show of the imagination, to make the dead sit up and talk, to shine light into the darkness of the great human mysteries.”

Seriously.

O’Brien also emphasizes the mystery that lies at the heart of this writing trickery, and I think that is what appeals to me about my jimmy-rigged Star Wars-fiction-writing analogy: Obi-Wan makes Luke (and us, the audience) believe because his trick is mysterious. We see the reality before our eyes: They are the droids! They are! Nonetheless, they are utterly fooled, and we blink in amazement. We see the trick performed, but we don’t understand it — and not understanding, counter-intuitively, is at the very core of why we believe.

Yet, the trick is no easy sleight of hand. Finding that exact language, as powerful and mesmerizing as it might be, gets complicated by each story that we set out to tell. I am thinking now about my current project, in which one of the characters is a young woman living in the mid-to-late 19th century American South. (I have written some about my imperfect process, including here.) As I (re)imagine her world, the choice of language suddenly becomes alien — because it is not my present language. She does not speak in this time or place. My trick is to make the reader believe that she is absolutely of that time and place. At the same time, she must be a fully fleshed-out character, with desires and longings and peculiarities and flaws, who speaks in her own specific voice.

In other words, to poorly mix a metaphor, I have a lot of Jedi mind tricks to pull out my little writing hat. Which means another kind of belief: in myself. And that’s the trickiest one of all.

Little writing brain cookers (or, why I got off Facebook)

I looked at the calendar today and realized that if I didn’t sit down and trip to the blog fantastic, I would go all of May without an entry. I know, alert the media. But here in the last days of the month, it finally seemed time to blather on about some sort of writing hoo-ha.

Well, the good news is I am writing. Of the fiction variety. The semester ended in early May, and after a few days of sleeping for 12 hours straight and a marathon binge of movies/TV and mountains of fro yo, I turned my focus to that book thing I’m working on.

Which reminds me: after AWP this year (which I did not attend, somewhat blissfully), my dear friend MG sent me this little number through the ol’ mail (courtesy of those ever hip folks at 826 Valencia):

It is? Hey, thanks, Postcard!

I love a good postcard pep talk. I love postcards, period. I love the mystery of the mailbox. I always sort of hold my breath when I open that sticky metal hinged door: what’s waiting in there for me? I guess email is the fancy, modern-day version of the mailbox: click on your email program, and it beeps at you. Hmm. This reminds me, weirdly, of my years as a bartender, when drunken patrons would wink, leer, whistle, or heaven forbid, snap their fingers to get a drink. Finger-snappers. I don’t know what to say about this, except, OH MY GOD. DON’T.

Which also reminds me: At the end of the semester, I said to Facebook, Hey Facebook, get the beep out of my face. (If anyone’s a finger-snapper, it’s that Facebook. Also, it’s certainly a non-tipper and probably will also ask to speak to your manager at some point).  How weird and complicated it’s become to get unplugged for awhile. Will actual friends think I “defriended” them? Will people be able to find me? And what does it say about me that I want them to? What about those ever-important writing contacts? Do I “announce” this departure, as I announce everything else: in a “status update”? And, oh no, what will happen to my “web presence”?

I finally answered those questions this way: Eff that noise, Chancellor. Sit your buns down and write. TW and I took the plunge together and signed off, which is lovely. We actually sit down in the living room together for long stretches without interruption. No desire to go “check.” Nothing to check. Except email beeps (see: finger-snappers). I also am limiting those checks to twice a day. As a friend says, folks can take an old, cold tater and wait.

Aside from the distraction/time suck of the Intertubes, something else has bothered me about how FB infiltrated my thought process. When something would strike me as funny, or I would observe something noteworthy out there in the world, I would begin to compose an “update.” To announce it on “my” page. Forget for a moment that I would then check repeatedly about who “liked” it or commented about it, neurotic little soul that I am; on its own, that impulse to announce strikes me as detrimental — to my fiction-writing process.

Once upon a time, back when we had this hilarious thing called “privacy,” I would take those bits of humor and observation and write them down in my notebook, or on a scrap of paper, or on my palm. I didn’t tell anyone about them. In other words, I would keep them to myself, and for myself. Those little bits, time and again, would become part of my writing work. By writing them down, I would add them to– for lack of a better description– my little writing brain cooker, and it would clank and hiss and steam for awhile, until voila, those bits would emerge, transformed and glistening, into something I could use in a story. It’s perhaps the closest thing to alchemy that I will ever experience. It’s one of my favorite things ever about being a writer, how my brain, seemingly without any help from me, does this strange, wondrous thing.

So why in the world would I want to mess that up by instead taking those bits and  flinging them like table scraps into a chattering morass (which, coincidentally, is monitoring me for advertising purposes) in the hopes that someone will “like” it? I guess it’s arguable that a status update is a kind of writing it down, thereby igniting the little writing brain cooker, but something about making it public deflates or diffuses the energy of it for me. Counter-intuitively, once it’s visible to everyone, I forget about it. It’s out of my hands.

By the way, I know that it’s terribly ironic that I am writing about being unplugged and keeping to myself while typing on a public blog. For this I offer you Whitman: “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then, I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes).” (Also, from the same poem, one of my very favorite lines of all time: “I depart as air,/ I shake my white locks at the runaway sun”). And anyway, hardly anyone reads this so-called blog. I think of this place as me, standing in a near-empty 7-Eleven parking lot and hollering like a madwoman at people as they zip on by. A few folks pull in for a Big Gulp on a whim. To them I say, Thanks. And, do you have some change for bus fare?

Hells bells, Mary, what was the point of all of this? Hard to say. So, I’ll just end by saying, Happy summer, and happy writing. May all of our little brain cookers fire on all cylinders.

Fragments of the whole

Oh, Insomnia. You’re like that college ex who keeps showing up in a bad dream, the one about the party at a house that’s not my house but is my house, and there you are, although it doesn’t look like you but it is you. You lurk off in the doorway to the garage, your lousy juju rising off you like cartoon stinklines. Jerk.

Alas, it’s nothing new. Even as a kid, I wasn’t a good sleeper. These days, when I am hyper-stressed, I fall asleep fine but then wake up at 4 a.m., my mind buzzing like a jar full of bees (who are using tiny bee chainsaws to cut down tiny bee trees). My waking days become a bleary-eyed mess, progressing from edgy impatience to sentence-mangling delirium (sorry, students). Luckily, this goes in waves. I think the final wave crashed last night; that is, I slept straight through.

Anyhoo. Writing about insomnia is about as riveting as listening to U.S. politicians these days; like those speeches, it’s also making me queasy and irritable, so let’s move on.

I’ve been thinking a lot about fragments. My novel-in-progress has a great deal to do with fragmentation, both in terms of subject (loss and memory) and of form (bits of narratives strung together out of order). This is not to say that I am actively thinking in terms of theme and structure while I’m writing; at this point I’m still figuring out the story. However, in looking at the pages I have, I see such a pattern emerging.

My beloved TW’s art projects also often are interested in fragmentation. Because of a project he is working on and because of a longstanding interest, we took a trip a few weeks ago to the Roger Brown Rock House Museum in Beulah, Alabama. Roger Brown was an extraordinary artist and collector who came to be known as one of the Chicago Imagists but who also kept strong ties to his native rural Alabama.

I am still emotional about this visit; this is a deeply affecting, inspiring exhibit/collection. Roger’s brother, Greg Brown, a great sculptural and collage artist who lives in Montgomery, oversees the museum and acts as guide. Because Roger passed away before the sale of the house was complete, Greg and his parents put together this space, which acts as both a museum and a memorial, a mix of Roger’s art and objects from his life. The pieces collected here reflect not just Roger’s obsession with collecting but also his family’s. Many items are those that their mother kept, or that Greg did, or related pieces that Greg found and added later. It would be impossible to list the thousands of disparate objects that come together this space, but some that stand out to me: Roger’s wildly gorgeous, cheeky art, including a large painting that hung for years in his parent’s grocery store in Opelika; old cigarette packs and a high school cowbell; an uncle’s Purple Heart; a junk drawer of a desk, kept exactly as it once was; Roger’s childhood drawings; a childhood devil Halloween costume; the roadside-store chairs that Roger wanted to buy and that Greg went back later and found; the prison matchstick lamps; the framed elegy that Greg wrote for his brother’s funeral; the photographs of their mother, whose ’40s-style hairdos are exactly represented in Roger’s female figures; the melmac dish collections; the sloping upstairs floor; the maps that Roger drew toward the end of his life, planning an architectural wonderland behind his parents’ home in Opelika; his Auburn beanie.

All of these fragments cohere in the most unbelievably beautiful way, and for me it’s because each object represents a story about Roger himself or about someone who knew and loved him. Even without Greg’s quiet, generous explanations, those stories are imbedded in these fragments of a life. They tell us about Roger — his artistic beginnings, his creative trajectories — but even more, they tell us about the people who loved him and about their connection. This is a space of collective memory, a jumble of pieces that reflect how lives brim and spill and ripple into each other. We are a complicated sum of our own memories, but also of others’ memories of us. When we subtract any part of that sum, what remains? Who is left? Are we still whole? Who are we when the people who remember us are gone?

The Rock House seems to ask these questions, and so far, here is my answer: We will spend much of our lives asking such questions, not as a way to stay in the past but as a way to move forward. In the act of retelling and reseeing, we do not relive; rather, we create a new connection, a new memory, give life to a life gone. We will do this again and again, creating pieces that we carry in our pockets like flat, smooth stones. Some days they will weigh us down; sometimes we will rub them obsessively with our thumbs. But sometimes, we will skip them across the lake of our lives, watching the ripples bend and fracture outward, until we lose sight of them in the shining sun.

The pedestrian view

Lately I’ve been doing some (half-assed) research into the concept of psychogeography. At the moment I’m reading (in short snatches) Merlin Coverely’s Psychogeography and Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Both have lots of great history about this somewhat amorphous subject, whose roots and contexts are heavy on the French, heavy on the urban environs, include Charles Baudelaire and the flaneur, Guy DeBord and the derive, and currently Will Self and his many walking adventures.  In an interview with 3 a.m. Magazine, Coverley gives a nice catch-all definition: “[Psychogeography] in its most general term, the main components: the political aspect, a philosophy of opposition to the status quo, this idea of walking, of walking the city in particular, the idea of an urban movement, and the psychological component of how human behaviour is affected by place. You can read that into many writers but especially Blake, Bunyan, and Defoe, this idea of the dream, or some psychological imprint overlaid on the landscape.”

It’s clearly more involved than that, but it’s that last bit, about the poets and writers and “this idea of the dream,” that has been at the heart of my interest. I’m not a philosopher. I don’t pretend to be a heavy thinker or scholar, even when I am in professor mode. But one thing I am, and always have been — long before I was a writer — is a walker.

My first experiences were not urban. I grew up in a small town in northern Arizona. From a very early age, probably 7 or 8 and till I was 16 and bought my first car, I walked everywhere. To school. To and from the bus stop, a mile from the house: up Coffee Pot Drive, cut through gravel Grasshopper Lane, over the fence, up the trail, and onto my street, Farmer Brothers Drive. I can see every step of it.  In a town with no bus system save for the tourist trolley, and parents who worked full-time, I walked home from friends’ houses and swim practice and the movie theater and the creek. In a town ringed by a famous red landscape, I walked up the sides of rocks, sometimes without shoes on, so smooth and climbable was the sandstone. From an early age, I saw the world from a slow, rock-kicking pace, a world of sun-heated hair and swarming gnats and mating grasshoppers, my cheap rubber shoes scuffing the edge of pavement.

It’s only looking back (of course!) that I see how much of that time trained me in solitude. Back then, I just wanted a freaking ride, to get home and sneak in some TV before my folks got home. But that walking was also very much a time of dreams. As my body worked externally, moving me forward, I went inside my head, into imagination. I remember, very clearly, wondering who lived in those homes on Grasshopper Lane, what their furniture looked like, what kind of dinners they had, if I would get in trouble if I stepped into their yard. I can still remember the shapes and spacing of houses on my routes, the shortcuts. I still remember the gray gravel, the powder-soft red dirt, the cat claws and foxtails and tumbleweeds that tugged at my pant cuffs.

Later, living in a small-sized city, a sprawling desert metropolis, and then a large Southern city, my walks were more recreational. Walking and hiking remain my two favorite modes of exercise. That urban environment indeed changed how I walked and how I saw, especially because otherwise I was driving everywhere. When I walked, I felt a little closer to the “traditional” psychogeographists, who are often working in resistance to what cities present. And at some point, I want to think more about those walking experiences, too.

But right now, I am going back to those early days, in part because I find myself again living in a small town, this one across the country from my original environs. The landscape here is softer, with towering trees that blur the horizon, a misty-heat. I am long into being a writer at this point, and I am conscious of how much walking plays a role in my sanity, as well as my creative process. During long weeks at my job, I find myself desperate to get outside, to slow down and breathe, to become aware of my feet hitting dirt and pine needles.

I don’t think of walking and writing as a direct connection; I’m not necessarily solving story problems or coming up with plot answers out there. It’s more, in some ways, that the physical act mimics the creative act. In both cases, I peer in windows. I gaze at the trees and clouds. I note weird things on the ground. I listen. I wonder.

(These are just some initial notes; I see more walking notes in my future.)

Confessions of a piranha heart

It’s a lovely March day outside my writing window.  The pear tree is in early bloom, with tiny white flowers that flutter down like confetti. Pollen dusts the windowboxes, and the lawn has erupted with blistery clumps of weeds like acne on a teenage forehead. It’s a junior high dance out there, everything tender and green. Spring has not yet sprung, but it’s coiled, quivering.

Yet, as I sit here, trying to scale the rust from my writing fingers, I find myself uninspired. I’ve been staring out the window for a good part of an hour, trying to settle down, to think of what has interested me lately, to think about what I’m thinking about writing-wise, to with any luck slide into the dreamscape.

What keeps creeping in instead are the petty annoyances of the past week or so. The details don’t matter; the key word here is “petty,” both in the sense of “of minor importance” and in the sense of my own “small-minded” attention to them. I can’t help but think of David Foster Wallace’s wonderful Kenyon commencement speech, in which he talks about our “default setting,” “which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self”; his point, which he makes far better than I can, is that we must choose to work to free ourselves of this default state and learn awareness, and that “it is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.” Plus, he uses the best fish metaphor ever.

I realize that I have been stuck in my default setting this last week. Guess what? It’s an ungenerous, unimaginative place, turbid and rank with grievances and resentments. Guess what else? My default water has water moccasins, which have been known to climb into people’s canoes, and piranha, which swarm and feed indiscriminately, leaving behind cow-sized skulls. When I finally come up for air, I am missing chunks of my own heart.

It’s no place to begin writing; what’s more, it’s no place to be if I aspire to live a good, meaningful, empathetic life.

And so: I remind myself to look outward, again. To look for– as Carver might say — the small, good things, but to not, in my heart, be small.

In other words, Get over yourself. And get back to work.