Category Archives: writing as path to discovery

A note to a character in my story, 2008

I came across this in the small notebook in which I started planning a 2008 NaNoWriMo story. It reveals more about its author than the character, but it was a good start. It let my creative mind know I was serious about finding a way to connect with it.

I’m not sure how to coax you out. I feel quite ridiculous for even attempting it. I don’t know how to contact you and whether you want to be contacted at all. I’m sure you’ll be offended by all my attempts because they will prove, as everything has always proven, that you’re not being heard or understood. No matter what I write it will in some way be a misunderstanding, as that previous sentence was – just for making any assumption at all.

Maybe you’ll think I’m trying to use you – and you’ll be right, because I want access to your story – but maybe you can look at it this way: we can save each other’s lives. Without me, you’re a ghost, half-formed, incomplete, and fleeting, but still existing and wanting to exist, solidly. I know, I’m not very inspiring, like some writers – I haven’t committed at all, have very little to show, my list of “clips” is pretty small and too, I’ve hardly written any stories – so I’m obviously a novice. And too, there’s the fact of my inconsistency.

I tend to lack faith and lacking faith is deadly. So I get enthusiastic about something and then when the enthusiasm cools I go off and do something else. That’s partly a result of feeling lost and unheard – you know what that’s like. We’re kind of alike.

Though I see a lot of ways we’re different.

And you, you’re going to help me out by the very fact that you exist, by giving permission to tell your story I think a rock will be lifted from my chest.

There’s this weight, you see, and its incredibly large and dark and it smothers and strangles me. It rises up into my throat and I can’t breathe easily and sure as hell can’t gather enough air to actually infuse the meaning that needs to be given life. You know about this.

I’m going to try not to worry about the fact that I don’t know your name, don’t have a plot, don’t have much of anything. I’m going to wait for the story to unfold.

I’d be angry too. Here I am trying to insist one of two things, both of which are probably wrong. The first being that you are me, that everything about you is a metaphor for my life. That makes you too convenient, takes away the validity of your being. The second is that you’re just a character, that you’re my imagination, not real. That denies the actual realness of everything you’ve experience through me and every other sentience which has birthed you.

I keep having flashes of you, images. The first, I think you’re about eight. You’re skinny and slightly snub-nosed and your straight dark brown hair is light at the tips from a lot of sun. There’s a village scene. You’re standing outside. Patiently standing there.

What if, after all these years, you found somebody able to hear you? What if it meant finding your way home? What if you could trust in somebody and be assured that all those meanings were understood? What if I tried to write it all, make it coherent?

Would you feel betrayed by my admission that I’m hoping you’ll cure me? That you will solve my problems? That’s what I’m hoping, to be honest, that after that I’ll be unburdened, that I’ll be unrepressed, that I’ll stop stopping myself with that internal critic, the one who says I have nothing to say. That I’ll be able to write.

Can we come to an agreement?

On the inside front cover, I wrote this:

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Fiction Going Nowhere, Part 2

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Sometimes, when weeks aren’t like this last one where I was so busy with multiple, sometimes pressing tasks, that fiction was farthest from my mind, I practice just letting what wants to be written get written. Sometimes those things shadow me all day (I can hear the whine: “When’re ya gonna sit down somewhere and write me, already?!”) but sometimes they just show up the moment I pick up a pen. And yes, I like to write by hand now and again – it taps a spring just off from the main one – because it brings up what is unplanned and swimming just under the surface. Sometimes what is revealed surprises me. Actually, often it does.

I like that.

Surprise and novelty and the unexpected make my muse-mind happy and a happy muse-mind is a good thing.

Now, generally and with only a few exceptions, these pieces of writing aren’t complete in any way. Even though I might write through to the end of what they demand in that moment, they’re not finished and never will be. I look at them as practice runs – like finger exercises for pianists, made of notes, but not the kinds of things that make for fully satisfying wholes. They sound neat, but aren’t complete.

Some months ago…Oh. Heavens. it was almost a year ago (yikes!)… I posted what was supposed to be first in an occasional series  of fiction “things.” This is Not a Story, the first piece in Fiction Going Nowhere, the category under which I’m filing them, turned out to be one of those few exceptions to the “going nowhere” bit because I actually DID finish the story and I’m prepping it for inclusion in an upcoming collection of short stories. In general, though, most of my fragmentary things, the small pieces that are practice, really aren’t going anywhere. But I still kind of like what they promise and the possibilities they embody.

I thought, rather than coddle them in my mind (or my hard drive, as the case may be) and cultivate some sort of strange attachment to them, I should just set them free here, off into the ether. As far as I can tell, the random snippets really have no plans or goals of their own other than that they’d actually kind of like to see the light of day reflected off their brief little surfaces. Who knows, maybe they will spark something that calls for further development. If they don’t that’s fine, they’ll just serve as signposts pointing toward places my writing mind has stopped briefly.

So, without further verbosity, here’s a second installment of Fiction Going Nowhere:

Stuart didn’t think she would’ve agreed with the label scatterbrained but on any given day it would not have been surprising to see Lucy walking to the market with one pant leg tucked into a boot and the other loose on the outside. There were other signs, too. Like the way she’d forget the task she was in the middle of and start in on something new. No, not forget, exactly — just be done at that moment and move on to the next. Like a honeybee moving from flower to flower, sometimes stopping to burrow in deeply and sometimes just pausing long enough to paw at the bloom with the barest amount of interest, moving on if no indication of morning nectar remained. What was more difficult about accepting that analogy, though, was the obvious and apparent absence of any results of her attention’s foraging.

What was the honey of her gathering, he wondered, the sweet gold of her interest’s wanderings. Weren’t her distractions, her distractedness, flights of fancy that bore no sustenance? That thought, and others like it, crossed Stuart’s mind several times a day and in spite of Lucy’s blasé attitude about unevenly buttoned blouses, unopened official-looking envelopes, and the stack of to-be-read- and half-started-books teetering at the bedside with said envelopes used as bookmarks, she thought it too….

-end-

… and if you think Lucy might bear any resemblance to me, well…uh, hmm… I’d have to deny it vociferously. But only after I get back from, ummm… something else. 😀

image credit: Geoff Llerena (from flickr)

"String Web" woven sculpture by Machiko Agano

tracking Story through imaginal lands

I will tell you something about stories
(he said)
They aren’t just entertainment.
Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
All we have to fight off
illness and death.
You don’t have anything
if you don’t have the stories.
Their evil is mighty
but it can’t stand up to our stories.
So they try to destroy the stories
let the stories be confused or forgotten.
They would like that
They would be happy
Because we would be defenseless then.
He rubbed his belly.
I keep them here
(he said)
Here, put your hand on it
See. It is moving.
There is life here
for the people.
And in the belly of this story
the rituals and the ceremony
are still growing.

– Leslie Marmon Silko (Ceremony)

* * * * * * * * * *
"String Web" woven sculpture by Machiko AganoIt’s an odd time we live in, relative to the time humanity’s been humanity. We’re different in the stories we tell, in our demand to be entertained.  We don’t recognize stories as Story, we call them Truth or fiction (lies), we pick them up and drop them again.  Our stories come and go so fast that we don’t learn them, we call them news. We learn to ignore them. It’s hard to see if ritual and ceremony are still “growing in the belly.”

Who passes down stories in families any more?  I don’t mean family stories, per se, but stories of ourselves nonetheless.  Maybe it’s a result of being a literate society, we find our stories in books. Or on TV. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, but I think it causes us to think that deep stories are separate from ourselves – they have to be in print, on paper or pixels, in order to be meaningful. How much is memorable, though, in the end? Is there life “here, for the people”?

Meanwhile, among the small talk, we learn to tell small stories to ourselves about ourselves.  My self-story, for some reason planted early into my psyche, was that my life had no story. That I was just a product of 1970s American suburban upbringing. Nothing to see here, move along.

“We are…less damaged by the traumas of childhood than by the traumatic way we remember childhood as a time of unnecessary and externally caused calamities that wrongly shaped us,” says James Hillman in The Soul’s Code.

But what about those of us whose childhoods seemed boring, fruitless, not full of trauma (real or imagined) except in how being given only the surface of things is traumatic?  I think Hillman is right to say this, “Our lives may be determined less by our childhood than by the way we have learned to imagine our childhoods.” The 1970s and 80s, suburban sprawl, school days, highways – all imagined, all imaginal and as such, full of Story. I have long denied them their right, have denied meaningfulness out of distaste.

I think I write merelCarry Me in Your Dreamsy to find Story. Every story I tell, whether in fiction,  non-fiction, poetry or drawing, is a search for a line, a thread of meaning, for something coherent. I believe that somewhere there must be signal in the noise.

As of today there are 6.8 million google hits for “I am a writer.” It’s the most commonplace thing in the world, it seems (almost one hit per ten existing human beings). Some writers become authors, some make a living at it. Some are entertainers, others keep their writings private (by choice or by inability to overcome the celebrity-to-crowd ratio).  Part of me sees the rightfulness in there being many story tellers, many makers of Story, and in the proof that we’re all creative. Part of me quivers at what it perceives as my lack of imagination (to create) and gumption (to share, or to promote)), at the sense that this has to be a competition for market value. Oh dread.

Meanwhile, the thread holds and I keep writing, here, in journals, notebooks, computer files.  Aren’t there enough words out in the world already? Maybe, but Story needs to be told.

***

I finished re-reading Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony yesterday and am encouraged to keep finding my own ways of telling stories – telling the story in the way it needs to be told, even if it’s not the way it would have been told in the “old days” IS the ritual and the ceremony that can heal and make whole.

I needed to be reminded.

***
What do you know about stories and Story?
Can you hear what it is we’re whispering to ourselves? Does our entertainment tell us something deeper about ourselves?
What stories about your life have you had to let go?
Do stories help?

***
image sources : Creative Commons License Dominic Alves via Compfight
and Phoebe M-H via Compfight

The Trap of my Imagination, Where I am Safely Perfect

278_Spirialling_Steps_of_the_Amedee_LighthouseThis morning, as the end of a year approaches, I woke into an insight as framed in the last few days of reflection and consideration. The insight pointed out that part of me thinks it’s safer to leave GOTS and all my other bits-and-bobs of writing unfinished. I’m pretty aware of this pattern of stopping again and again though I’ve not yet  overcome it.

Fishing around for my motivation to finish GOTS I saw that there is a contradictory inner force pulling the strings, ruling through my own abstention from taking power, my own abdication.

GOTS has this strange quality of never, never ending, while simultaneously taking 60,000 words (so far) to go absolutely nowhere. It’s a non-story, in fact. But if I keep it unfinished, in a permanent state of “draft,” I never have to deal with that. A perpetually hopeful, childish, “I don’t want to grow up and finish something attitude”  keeps everything I work on in a state of incompletion.

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Short stories are always just drafts, poems are drafts, CTRH (my first “novel-thing”) is a broken mess of a draft that is, not surprisingly, without an ending. GOTS is so flawed that I can’t see my way to complete it because its “completed” state will prove that my writing is a waste of time.

I “refuse” to put action in the story (observing “it just keeps slipping away”), I never make something happen, and my characters don’t act decisively and with commitment (yes, my characters appear to be reflections of my own worst traits, don’t worry, I won’t force you to read it), because doing so would send them on their way toward being just as crappy in their final form. Short stories don’t get shown to anyone, they sit in rough or final drafts or are idealistically compiled into  fake “anthologies” which go nowhere though their mother has high ideals. Everything inhabits a fluid and open spot on my to-do list. Eternally in progress, unjudgeable, safely tucked away.

If that’s the case — and it is the case — now that I’ve identified the problem, what needs to be done to fix it? Two ideas popped up in the course of assessing this situation.

1. I need to submit short pieces to real markets and not just self-pub them (to my audience of 4 blog-readers). Self-pub is in the works for some things, but self-sabotage requires external assistance. If I rely on myself for everything, the process breaks down at some point – something stalls when that outdated mindset wants to keep everything “safely” In Progress.

2. I need to finish a crappy draft of GOTS. It needs to crawl to the finish line. I’ve come to judge it, to think poorly of it, to disdain it because it’s such a pale, broken simulation of what it was supposed to be and keeping it un-done allows my mind to hold onto what “it could have been” and what it  “could be,” the ideal I’m capable of creating in a perfect world where I’m a perfect me.

This means that, for my own peace of mind, to overcome this pattern of cowardice (always backing away, always turning tail with a cheery smile on my face as I look to New Ideas that don’t put up a fight), I have to start calling some things DONE. Play is all well and good and I love that part of creative work – that it engages playfulness – but at this late date, I also need to grow up a little and claim my work as *Something* and not just let it dissolve so I can avoid disappointment through avoiding completion. Not having done this and  always focusing on process, I’ve also avoided the kind of joy that is only available by wrapping something up and feeling the syncretic reality of process joined with final product.

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It’s time to stop fooling myself with my fantasy world in which I pretend all is well in the workshop, that all the kinks are being worked out eternally, eternally in service of how good my ideal is and, “shhh, don’t look at the broken, misshapen, flat and unworkable prototypes on the factory floor. They’re not mine, I don’t know how they got there.”

If I want to inhabit my creativity, if I want to actually do real work and not live in my head (where it is very, very safe and very, very stifling) then I’m going to have to finish something and let it exist as itself in the world.

That’s what 2014 is going to be about.

***
image credits: Amédée Lighthouse stairs, photo by Eustaquio Santimano, originally on flickr, here, but it wouldn’t load for me. It was also here. Creative Commons license.

the armless driver (WHO is driving this ship?) is also on flickr from donpezzano/Don Urban. Creative Commons license.

the little broken dolls are from the blog Ullabenulla. The blogger, Ulla Norup Millbrath uses such things for her own artwork (lesson: use it all, even the broken pieces!!). Not cc licensed, but hopefully use with attribution is ok.

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self: scientist, publicist…person

This is a post from 2012, and as I work to re-post-ulate this blog, I find it’s still relevant.

 

It has come to my attention (self-reflectively as is appropriate to post-modern solipsism) that I have nothing to add to the internet’s cache of information. I don’t know if that indicates my lack of social utility, a failure of creativity, an utter retro-square mindset (the opposite of which would be a rush to expose, through all electronic social networks just the things I wouldn’t share with my real life ones) or if it’s just wishy-washy dilly-dallying on my part, a fear to commit what it takes to stake my space, forge my “Brand.”  That and the overwhelming sense one can get by spending even a small amount of time online: it’s all already been said, why bother?

But I am bothered. I have things I want to share, conversations I’d like to be part of and they all get waylaid by all that’s involved with putting more words online.

In some ways starting this blog was like undertaking an advertising campaign without a product to market.  No invention, no novel idea (well, there is an idea for a novel, but I digress), no empirical data or dogmatic conviction. Just a life, just some thoughts, just a notion that blogging could be a viable way to connect with others.

It isn’t – or at least not in any life-changing, honest-to-goodness way. It’s illusory – I go away for months, nobody notices. A regular reader goes away for months, nobody notices. We can’t, we’re off to the next best greatest new thing to relieve us from the agony of boredom. We’re looking for the day’s True Truth, revealed in Twitter feeds, that will grant us momentary status in the nebulously networked, self-referencing universe of “oh, look at me!”

I wonder where this is heading, what’s the inevitable outcome of the requirement that we spin our lives to collect “friends,” that we push ourselves to be cutting edge, ahead of the curve. What are we sacrificing (what does the cutting edge cut away)?

Though they often leave me woozy, I like big questions and the possibilities they bring to our awareness. Mostly I don’t understand the universe – there’s consciousness (I think!), there’s matter, there’s energy, there’s emptiness and perception – all jumbled together with enough regularity to make us think we can get a grip on it and with enough anomaly that we sometimes get our convictions served back to us on a platter.

I was entertained (oh, is that the best we can get these days?) by a piece in The New Yorker (2010) in which the author reported on what he called “the decline effect.” By now Jonah Lehrer’s… shall we say, journalistic indiscretions, have become well known (see here and here if they’re not well known to you). But at the time, and being a slightly nerdy skeptic of “absolute” knowledge (as in, I like/benefit from but am untrained in science and I also accept other epistemologies), I fell for Lehrer’s notion that the universe might be throwing the “rules” of the game just ’cause it can, in all its way-out-there vastness. But just because an idea sounds good doesn’t make it valid. No brainer, right? Yet isn’t that a fundamental problem for humans?  All it takes is one glance at the varieties of philosophical ideas that have been promoted by one person or another through the millenia, all the styles of governing proposed, soteriological prescriptions offered, utopias envisioned to see that we love to take an idea and show all the ways the world proves it correct.*

Ironically, Lehrer made that same point in that same article, “Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true.” I quote him here not to push home some sort of weird relativistic notion of truthfulness and provability (and that quote rightfully garnered a huge backlash); with remarkable accuracy we can explain and predict how matter behaves in this world because of information we have gathered with scientific inquiry – the scientific method is not really being challenged as Lehrer suggested.  Non-material reality, though, is of course, not so easy to pin down or interpret – and this is both because of the “problems” of subjectivity and wrapped around what subjectivity actually is.

This is a symptom of deep cultural uncertainty that leaves many scrambling for explanations or ways to cope.  For many, though, it’s been a springboard to a thriving career path that leads to

the dubious promised land of the convention hall, where the book, blog, TED talk, and article are merely delivery systems for a core commodity, the Insight.

New York Magazine’s Boris Kachka wrote a little over two weeks ago in an article on Lehrer’s downfall and the culture that created it, that “[t]he Insight”

is less of an idea than a conceit, a bit of alchemy that transforms minor studies into news, data into magic. Once the Insight is in place—Blink, Nudge, Free, The World Is Flat—the data becomes scaffolding. It can go in the book, along with any caveats, but it’s secondary. The purpose is not to substantiate but to enchant.

Lehrer, far from alone in his travels

was scrambling up the slippery slope to the TED-talk elite: authors and scientists for whom the book or the experiment is just part of a multimedia branding strategy.

Kachka posits that “he was less interested in wisdom than in seeming convincingly wise,” compelled and compounded in part by a culture in which writers (particularly staff writers for magazines which focus on the intersections of technology and science with social sciences and consciousness studies) “function as boldfaced brand experts in everything from economics to medicine to creativity.” [all emphasis mine]

blah.

I think that my self-fueled dilemma about blogging arises because the nature of the media is predicated on the existence of audience. I hope I’m not playing the role of the wallflower who claims that “dances are so stupid!” just because nobody asks her to dance, but that I’m honestly not sure how having an audience observe the inner workings of my mind affects said workings. Can I dance freely when I know others are or will be watching?  Do I really have to retire to a cave?

Oh, did I ever mention I overthink?

It’s hard not to when cases like John Locke (the contemporary writer who gained a following after receiving lots of positive book reviews, which he paid for) and Jonah Lehrer show up with some regularity, when ‘surface’ is the soup of the day and ‘substance’ is dropped from the menu.

Maybe I just have to have the attitude of a three year old – you know, if I close my eyes, nobody else is here.  Dear audience, forgive me. I know you exist (well, I take it on faith maybe), I just want to be careful… I don’t want to dance because somebody’s watching.

Meanwhile I’m off to update my SEO stuff.**

—–
*cynicism on this front brought to you today by the 2012 US presidential election campaigns.

** I take full responsibility for the irony of this conclusion.

 

 

sunlight leaves

Write the Way to Love

 

I know it sounds odd, but lately I don’t know what I love.  I mean I can name things I love, the things I’ve always loved, the things I’m supposed to, that which is obvious.  But the truth is, there’s a kind of distance, a numbness, a too-busy-to-really-feel how I feel about much.  Not a pathological dissociation, just a sense of going through the motions.  I can put it down to being in a foreign country, to having willingly left a home I loved and entered another place* where I don’t know whether or not I belong, to being the go-to-person at home, to not being compelled enough to work on the (ideally) fulfilling work that I know, rationally, could give me a sense of purpose.

Tributes to Ray Bradbury were everywhere right after he died.  I can’t really add anything that hasn’t already been said in gratitude for the pure happiness and play he brought to the world.  Maybe his influence was too strong – to this day I hesitate to commit to important things, fearing my butterfly decisions will irrevocably change the world, my world, in unwanted ways.  Then sometimes, I’m just bold.  We up and move overseas, I plunge into something new.

I’m not intentionally going on a Bradbury-kick, but I’m hearing again the good advice he’s given:

Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live by.

That is profound in every way and I’m a struggling disciple.

This month I’ve made a commitment to write something every day – ideally fiction, so I can disabuse myself of the notion that I’ve got no stories to tell, but realistically it can all be experimental, slice-of-life, whatever. Not journal writing/ranting, not blog posts, but snippets or more of a scene, an event, a location, and something happening, something I love, even if it’s just the floating wooden puzzle box from last night’s dream that’s the only thing I love at this moment. Put it in, get it written.

I know I love light through leaves. I started there.


* stories for another time – my extended stay in Thailand and the moves to China to Germany…

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Writing, Spirit and Courage

I believe writers must travel into wilderness and bring back what they find, envelop it in words, and release it into the world. I believe that is their ecological function and without that renewal human culture deteriorates. I believe in the sacredness and the necessity of the art..          –Stephen Harrod Buhner

I once had an acquaintance who derided me for not being into physically adventurous things.  Nevermind that I am physically active, was once a competitive swimmer and practiced aikido – if I wasn’t mountain biking or rock climbing or alternately throwing myself down mountains on skis, I was missing out, I was not “edge” enough.

Now, I may not be the most courageous of folks (evidenced by my inability/unwillingness to scathe him with a witty comeback) but as someone who wrings every assumption out through writing, who is willing to go deep and look directly at my life, find what’s at the center and what can be brought back in beautiful form, I have to say that Buhner’s reminder gives me more courage to explore a different wilderness. An equally dangerous one.

I know I hang back even though I try not to.  I know I am not doing the daring things that might be possible.  But I’m at least willing to stand on the threshold and enter, open-eyed.

I am a practicant of this sacred and necessary art, but I have not earned any right to claim ecological or cultural significance.  I understand the importance of bringing a gift back from your journey, something to heal your community, something to nourish those who have nourished you.* Maybe it’s better to not know that, though, because it contributes to “pressure to produce.”  Something that makes it less likely that anything will come of a novice’s attempts to to use writing as a spiritual practice.


Quote from: Buhner, Stephen Harrod. Ensouling Language: On the Art of Nonfiction and the Writer’s Life.

* a la Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey

Image source: Trey Ratcliff via Compfight