Tag Archives: writing

The Story Writes the Writer

One of the powerful lessons our planet has to teach us (if only more would listen!) is the miracle of complex systems. Scientists are beginning to understand that our old paradigm of mechanistic reductionism does not honor how intricately and elegantly chemistry, geology, oceanography, paleontology, astrophysics and biology are woven together. Our most challenging and pressing issues are all connected: health and access to healthcare, diet, climate change, overshoot, pollution, education and resource access, to name but a few.

As I write this post, I’m crammed in a corner of my attic office. My partner is building me a bookcase in the middle of the room. There’s sawdust on the rug, piles of books all over the floor, tools and shims and clamps and screws on the floor and file cabinet. We’re chatting about nothing much as I write and he mutters to himself and runs power tools. I pause now and then to look out the window, where a frigid winter wind is blowing, and to run my eyes lovingly over the books heaped around my feet, waiting patiently for their new accommodations.

Several others have occupied this attic space before me. The house, after all, is almost 200 years old. The horsehair lath and plaster walls, covered with old-fashioned wallpaper; the slanting ceiling; and the wide planks of the floor, painted a light shade of grey-brown, have contained and witnessed many thoughts, feelings, hopes, and dreams.

When I moved in, I adjusted to the space and what was here, not only because I was overwhelmed and homesick for my place in Colorado, but also out of respect for the rooms, the house, and my partner and his memories and history in this place.

Now, nearly five years later, I have rooted firmly into my new life. I no longer feel like a visitor or a temporary roommate. These two adjoining attic rooms know me. I’ve slept here. I’ve pulled Tarot cards, burned candles and incense, cleaned, smudged, written countless words, cried, listened to music, exercised, danced, and nursed illness and injury here.

We humans have a tendency to consider ourselves Masters of the Universe. Between that assumption and the truth, that we are but one species among billions of other forms of life, some of which we remain ignorant of and many of which have lived on this planet millions of years longer than we have, yawns a chasm of ignorance, arrogance and self-destruction.

A study of complexity opens up a wider awareness, however. This space is not truly mine. I’m a temporary occupant, and I care for and about these little rooms, but they were here long before I was and may yet shelter other lives when I am through here. In fact, I wonder if I don’t belong as much to the space as it does to me.

That thought leads me to wondering if I’m shaping worlds, creating characters and writing stories, or if those worlds, characters and stories are shaping, creating and writing me.

We didn’t plan it, but somehow last weekend my partner and I found ourselves up here with tools and a crowbar, disassembling a largecounter, built by a previous occupant. I didn’t find it useful as anything but a bookshelf, and it took up a lot of space. I was beginning to think about removing it sometime in the future in favor of a couple of bookshelves. The stars unexpectedly aligned perfectly on this snowy, cold weekend, and we rolled up our sleeves and started making a mess.

Tearing out the counter damaged the wall. I spackled and sanded and began to think about paint. I tore a small sample of the old wallpaper out of a corner of the closet and took it to the paint store, where I picked out a buttery cream color (Cottage Cream—I love paint color names!) that toned with the wallpaper.

That’s why, this morning, I’m an island in a sea of books while my partner inches busily around one of my new bookshelves with tools and hardware in the middle of the room. In the adjoining room, the first coat of paint is drying. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I won’t be able to do a final coat before I leave for work. I hate living in chaos. On the other hand, it’s possible my shelves will be ready in time for me to get some of my books off the floor before I leave!

It was tempting to tell myself this morning that I couldn’t do any writing in such a mess. Instead, I decided to allow the temporary chaos around me to write this post, to shape this morning, and to mold me in this moment in time. At the same time, we, the current inhabitants of this house, are shaping a more usable and personalized space for me.

We humans are not graceful about being shaped by anyone or anything. We resent and resist. For some reason, we don’t feel as though we should have to deal with disagreement; inconvenience; difficult people, situations or feelings. We’re equally outraged if others complain about the impact of our behavior on them.

I see a different truth. Each individual life on earth is literally shaped by everything around it, both living and what we call nonliving. Our inability to discern a direct superhighway between ourselves and a total stranger on the other side of the world doesn’t diminish the power and reality of our interdependence. It just means we’re terribly and dangerously ignorant.

Those who came before me to this attic aerie chose wallpaper, paint, shelves, window coverings, and where to fasten things to the walls. Now I, in my turn, am molding the space to my needs and preferences, but the space itself is not passive. Sunlight, moonlight and draughts move through it in a particular way. The red bricks of the chimney rising through one of the rooms radiates heat. The floor dips, creaks and sways, dictating where I sit, sleep and exercise. The low, slanted ceiling does not accommodate some stretches and dance movements. The narrow, steep stairs limit what I can bring up in terms of furniture.

I am shaped, influenced, limited, challenged, rearranged, smoothed down and roughed up by my two little rooms, just as surely as I’m deconstructing, patching, sanding, painting, scrubbing and reconstructing my physical surroundings. Together, we create my life. We are partners. I am who I am because of my living space, and it is as it is because of me.

My whole life has shaped my writing, and in the last few years my writing has shaped my life. As I weave story and work with characters and other worlds, they enter my dreams and my thoughts. I carry their influence with me as I live. Because of Our Daily Crime, I ask more questions in the world, am more present with others, and listen more carefully. The discipline of posting weekly demands I find a way through discomfort, change and upheaval, and write anyway. I am not the Princess and the Pea. I can write even if my surroundings are not ideal.

Nobody but me could write my Webbd Wheel series or create the space I need. Perhaps no other story or living space in the world could have written this moment’s version of me.

Being written by the story. My daily crime.

Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

Unplugged (Sort of)

I recently read a blog post from one of the minimalist blogs I follow about unplugging from technology for one day a week. Actually, it wasn’t that recent. It was, in fact, in August. I left the post in my Inbox and I’ve been thinking about it.

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All right, procrastinating about it.

You see, although it seemed like an attractive idea, I couldn’t unplug in August because I had a family situation that necessitated watching my e-mail closely.

When that was over, I thought about it again, but then I was watching … what? I can’t remember. A possible hurricane down south somewhere? I think so. Anyway, I really wanted to watch it. It was important.

I observed myself both want to unplug for a day and resist unplugging for a day. It reminded me irresistibly of giving up honey in my tea.

When I came to Maine, I changed my lifelong, mostly plant-based, low fat, low sugar (by this I meant, you know, white sugar) diet to eating keto. More about that journey here, here, here and here. I had, at that point, started every day of my adult life with a large cup of green tea sweetened with a spoonful of honey. It was an important daily ritual. I looked forward to it, counted on it, needed it. On the road, camping, or at home, I had to have my green tea and honey in the morning. I could do without sleep, hot and cold running water and food, but my morning tea was nonnegotiable.

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Honey, that delicious golden elixir I used to buy by the gallon in spite of the cost, is a carbohydrate. Our bodies do not distinguish between plain old white sugar, honey, agave or any other kind of “natural” or “organic” sugar. For me, this means inflammation, autoimmune disease and chronic pain.

I was determined to regain my health. The daily dose of honey had to go.

I have an extremely hostile relationship with addiction, as my family of origin is affected by it and I know I’m genetically and behaviorally predisposed. I’ve stayed far, far away from any substance or behavior that I thought might potentially become addictive for me. At least, that’s been my intention.

However, life is going on while we’re deciding who we will not be and what we will not do, and although I was aware of how much I depended on my morning cup of tea, green tea is good for you, right? No harm in that habit.

Except I realized, after day two or three of tea without honey, that the tea was pleasure. The honey was addiction. I needed it. I craved it. I was miserable and angry and deprived without it. My body needed that first hit of carbohydrate in the morning, needed it desperately because I was basically chronically malnourished and addicted to carbs.

I was completely chagrined. Life is very humbling sometimes. Have you noticed?

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Me being me, all I needed was to feel how much I depended on the honey to become determined to give it up. I was building a new life, including eating a massive breakfast of animal fat, meat and eggs every morning immediately upon rising. I went right on drinking tea, but I stopped using honey. I stopped needing honey because I’d finally figured out how to feed myself appropriately. In time, the craving went away, along with the majority of carbs in my diet and chronic pain and inflammation.

Make no mistake, though. I whined and complained and bitched every step of the way. For a time, I considered giving up tea altogether. I would never enjoy it as much again. The honey enhanced the flavor, and it just wasn’t the same without it. What was the point? Getting out of bed was no fun. The morning was no fun. Never again would I have a big cup of Earl Grey tea with lemon and honey and spend an hour sipping and reading a good book on a snowy afternoon, etc., etc., etc. It was pathetic and maddening. I hated myself and everyone else, and I resented my physical need to delete carbs from my diet.

I couldn’t help noticing how similarly I felt about unplugging from technology for even one day, in spite of priding myself on not being captive to it. I have a cell phone I hardly ever use. It’s an effort to turn it on every three days or so and check for messages. I don’t use social media. Left to my own devices, I’d never watch TV. The only tech I really use is my laptop, but I use that for many hours every day. I’d love to be able to honestly say all that use is writing, but it’s just not so.

I check the headlines on MSN, even though I know it’s all click bait and I rarely believe much of what I read in the “news.” Then I check the weather forecast. I check my e-mail accounts. I read the Google news headlines, not as sexy and sensational as MSN and slightly more reliable. Maybe. I bank online. I run the blog online. I do research. I check on local movies. I play solitaire.

I play a lot of solitaire.

I loved the sound of unplugging from all this for a day. It was such a good idea I wondered why I hadn’t tried it before. As soon as I looked at my calendar with the intention of planning an unplugged day, I began to recognize resistance.

A lot of resistance.

I didn’t want to admit it. I use less tech than anyone I know. I’m smug about staying away from GPS, social media and the need to have a cell phone surgically attached to my person. The truth is, however, that I’m just as caught in the addictive net of tech as anyone else.

Shit.

My choice about all this was to leave the post about unplugging in my mailbox, where I’d see it several times a day (because I check my e-mail countless times a day), and sit with my chagrin, my resistance and my recognition of my own compulsion to remain plugged in. I’ve been doing that for weeks now, alternating between resentment and amusement.

For some reason, late Saturday I decided I was going to take the bull by the horns and stay off the Internet on Sunday. Not off the word processor, but off the Internet. No after-breakfast check on the headlines, etc. while I drank my morning green tea (unsweetened). No first solitaire game, during which I thought about where to start working. No e-mail.

I needed to know I could do it, no matter how uncomfortable it was.

Minimalism is an amazing practice. It starts externally with objects, but once I began to look at my life in terms of what really matters and all the stuff that obscures and distracts from that, the internal work took over. My small experiment with unplugging from the Internet was a perfect illustration of the dynamic of unconscious clutter.

Sunday was the most spacious day I’ve had in months. I looked at the clock twenty times in disbelief. The day seemed to have about four extra hours in it. It was a beautiful autumn day, a day off from work, a day in which I didn’t have to go anywhere or do anything. I got out the crock pot and made a keto version of spaghetti meat sauce with no pasta. I did some good writing. I read. I stripped the bed and did laundry. I put on some music and exercised. I prepared for the work week ahead.

On Monday morning, I came up the stairs to my attic workspace and opened up the Internet to see what I’d missed.

Absolutely nothing.

I had more spam than usual in my e-mail, because I hadn’t checked every hour or so and deleted it as it came in. My bank account was just as I’d left it (darn it!). The headlines were the same old headlines. The autumn weather managed to exist without me having read the forecast. I’d somehow navigated a whole day without sitting down to play a game of solitaire while I thought about the next step.

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It was an eye-opening experiment that will now become a weekly habit. It’s hard to think about totally unplugging and going screenless for a day, but not as hard as it was before Sunday. I am a writer, but writing is still possible the old-fashioned way, with paper and pen.

As I’ve worked on this post the last couple of days, my partner sent me a provocative article about our relationship with our smart phones. I’m not the only one rethinking my relationship with tech and clutter in general.

Instituting simpler Sundays without the intrusion of the Internet. My daily crime.

Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

Good and Bad

I’m in the middle of a conversation with a friend, who is a writer, about “good” and “bad.” Good and bad what, you ask? Good and bad writing. Good and bad singing. Good and bad cooking.

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The subject caught my attention because it evokes strong feelings, but I’ve been struggling for several days now to begin exploring it in writing with any kind of coherence. It seems ridiculously complicated, which is interesting and makes me even more determined to tackle it.

Sometimes the only thing I can do is start peeling the onion and see what happens, so here goes.

“Good” and “bad” are subjective descriptors. According to Oxford Online Dictionary, good is variously defined as “to be desired or approved of,” and “giving pleasure, enjoyable or satisfying.” Bad is “of poor quality or a low standard,” “not such as to be hoped for or desired; unpleasant or unwelcome.”

It seems to me “good” and “bad” are like “success.” Either we retain our power and define them for ourselves, in spite of external pressure, expectations, criticism or judgment, or we allow others to tell us what “good” and “bad” are. In the case of creative expression, like writing, singing and cooking, it’s impossible to please all the people all the time. Sometimes it’s impossible to please anyone.

Is that a goal of an artist, to please others? Certainly, up to a point. If I can’t interest an agent in my writing, it’s unlikely I’ll be published. If my writing is not deemed marketable, no agent will take me on.

Is marketable the same as “good?” Is popular the same as “good?”

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Emphatically, no. I’ve read bestsellers that I thought were trash. I’m absolutely certain great writing exists that will never be discovered by the world. Some of my favorite authors are heavily criticized as being poor writers.

It seems to me “good” and “bad” boil down to opinion or preference. It might be an educated opinion, a well-respected opinion, or just a I-know-nothing-about-art-but-I-know-what-I-like opinion, but an opinion, even a majority opinion, is not a universal law.

Creative artists work from a mix of skills and inspiration. Some artists have the resources and access to become formally trained in the use of writing skills, musical skills or culinary skills, especially if they recognize their interest and/or aptitude for a particular artistic expression early in their lives.

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Many others, including myself, may lack the resources, access or interest in such formal education and training, or may come to their art later in life. These artists are frequently autodidacts (self-taught people) who simply practice their art, whatever it is, because they must. They may or may not be as refined and elegant as those who obtain years of education and training, but they feel a passion or obsession for artistic expression that won’t be denied.

This mix of skill and inspiration is part of what makes the whole issue of “good” and “bad” so complicated. Skill is the ability to do something well. The definition implies that someone gets to decide what doing well means. Who decides that? Am I in charge of that, as the reader, concert-goer or diner, or are the writer, singer and chef the ones who define their artistic expression as well done?

As we create art, what are we focused on? Do we want to earn a living? Are we focused on competition—do we want to be number one? Are we determined to be famous? Rich? Successful? Influential? Professional? Validated? Perhaps, on the other hand, we have no expectation of living by our art, but artistic expression is a private joy, a sacred healing, an exercise in authenticity that keeps us rooted and grounded. Art is our prayer, our act of gratitude and hope, an expression of love for those around us, our love letter to life.

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As we consume art (read, listen, eat), what are we focused on? Perhaps we are collectors who are intent on investment and monetary value. Perhaps we love art because it inspires us; opens our hearts, minds and imaginations; or helps us manage our feelings. Maybe we’re avid readers, lovers of music, or lovers of fine cuisine. We may think of ourselves as “professional” or “successful” artists and thus feel qualified to judge and compare the work of others.

Calling a piece of writing, a song or a meal “good” or “bad” strictly in terms of a demonstration of skill, however, leaves out the heart and soul of creativity. Passion, inspiration and obsession cannot be taught. We might enjoy and admire the skill underpinning a technically perfect book or song or meal, but we’re not robots. Compelling art is not made from skill alone.

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Art, at its best, breaks us open. It haunts us. It companions us. It provokes, challenges, explores, dares, admits, stuns, shocks, amuses, comforts, excites and enlarges us. “Good” and “bad” are far too unsophisticated and limited to describe the central power of creative expression. The skill of the artist might add to that power, but skill without the animating spirit of passion is merely a well-learned series of maneuvers.

What is art worth? What is the value of joy, of authenticity, of artistic expression that reflects a piece of our soul? Art, for me, is about an expression of human experience, inherently valuable, even sacred, in its truth and vulnerability. I’m not qualified to judge another’s expression of experience. I wouldn’t presume to do so. I wouldn’t dare.

In the end, I can only circle back around to my own power, my own intentions and integrity, and my own limitations. I’m not a formally trained writer. As a creator, I’m compelled to create. I know it’s part of what I’m here to do. It’s humbling and gratifying when others find value in my work, but even when I have no indication of that, I value it.

Writing provides me with a vehicle for managing feelings, deep healing, a bridge for connection, and an irresistible and fascinating personal challenge. How can I increase my skill? What can I learn? How can I become a better writer with every blog post and every page of my manuscript? How can I increase my confidence, courage and authenticity through writing? What’s the best I can contribute?

I don’t frame my creative work as “good” or “bad.” I do think about how to make it better. To that end, I gladly solicit and receive feedback from others, and several people in my life have made huge contributions to my skill, but at the end of the day I consider my own opinion of its value first, and I take neither praise nor criticism personally.

To create art is to be fully present. A piece of art is an invitation to be intimate with the artist and ourselves, an invitation to increase our empathy, respect and compassion, to reach out and clasp the experience of another human being.

Photo by David Hofmann on Unsplash

I’ve written before about the cultural pressure to make ourselves small in a myriad of ways. How many natural artists (every child) have been criticized, shamed, derided or otherwise amputated from their artistic expression, particularly if it’s in any way sensual? How many people walk around with soul hunger to create poetry; to dance, to make music and sing songs; to be artists, but deny themselves because they don’t think they’re good enough? How many people have made a creative offering or expression and been rejected, mocked or dismissed?

I believe if we want a better, healthier culture, those who want to play with words must play with words, those who want to play with paint must play with paint, every shower must have a singer, every piece of music a dancer, and every instrument an explorer.

Skill matters, depending on the artist’s intention and the audience’s perception. I suppose we can describe our perceptions of skills as “good” or “bad,” although I think we could come up with less subjective standards of measurement and recognize skill level as only a part of artistic expression.

Skill matters, but heart and soul matter more.

Making art. My daily crime.

Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash