Every Day is Saturday

Finding Joy in the Here and Now

Poetry Schmoetry

Shelfie

This is a picture of the books I have right now on my desk; a “shelfie” you might call it. Most of them are books of poetry; you’ll find Sylvia Plath, Billy Collins and Seamus Heaney here. I also have the three most recent editions of the annual anthology “The Best American Poetry“, as well as the volume that came out last year to commemorate the 25th anniversary of that publication. There are books by writers about writing – Stephen King, Margaret Atwood and Steven Pressfield are evident. There is a book about memoir writing called “Handling the Truth“, which title I can’t read without picturing the actor Jack Nicholson, red faced and yelling.I keep my Elements of Style close to me. David Sedaris is here as well, in case I need a quick dip into whimsy. At the end are various notebooks where I scribble things I then forget I’ve written. I probably ought to look through them sometime.

I have read most of these books in their entirety at least once (except Sylvia Plath, whom I admire but good grief she’s a lot of work sometimes). I have found inspiration in them, and joy, and wistfulness, and hard truths. Mostly, I feel like there is never enough time to read everything I want to. I picked up Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” three weeks ago and have yet to crack the cover. I need to read William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, because really, how can I call myself a writer if I’ve never read Faulkner? And don’t get me started on all the poets I’ve never read! That list is impossibly long, and it seems to get longer all the time.

I keep all this poetry close to me because I believe that all good writing is inherently poetic. All writers struggle with describing the truth of something. In poetry, it is the truth of the emotion or event or observation. In fiction, it is the truth of the characters in the story. Memoirists try to capture the truth of their own life stories, at least as they see it.

I also keep the poetry close because almost every writer whose advice I’ve heard says that to write well, you have to have a sense of poetry. You don’t necessarily need to write it, but you do need to read it, and read extensively. I have come to love it, and to respect it, and to want to do it. But I’m frightened; the idea of writing poetry feels like jumping off of a cliff to me, but it’s the only way to find out if I can fly.

I wish I could explain the desire I feel for poetry. It’s like falling in love; I want to know it, to understand it, and for it to understand me. How can a poem understand me? Well, that’s the magic, isn’t it?

What poets or writers transport you?

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Photo by Amanda Taylor Brooks (c) 2014

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Finding My Voice

GACS Chorus 1985

A few weeks ago a guy in my writer’s group told me my novel was coming along well – the story was flowing smoothly, the characters were developing nicely – and he thought I should interject more of my “voice” into the writing. I was so pleased and flattered by his comments; it’s the kind of feedback any aspiring writer wants to hear. I also agreed with him. I’ve been feeling the novel is going well (as far as it has gone anyway, which really isn’t that far), and I shouldn’t be afraid to interject more “me” into it. However, having embraced the idea of putting more of my voice into my writing, I’ve been struggling ever since about not only how to do it, but also with figuring out what my “voice” sounds like.

Which struggle, if you know me, sounds crazy.

Am I wrong about that?  I mean, I’ve always been the kind of person who is pretty clear about who she is and what she thinks, right? My personality isn’t some great big mystery, is it? I hardly go around hiding who I am. I may try to soften the impact because I’m afraid of steamrolling people I don’t know, but that’s a losing battle – my “voice” is a loud one, no matter what I try to do to tone it down.

So why am I having so much trouble finding my voice in my writing?

Part of me thinks that my voice is already there – I mean, it’s my writing, isn’t it? My perspective, my sense of humor, my wants and desires, hopes and dreams – it’s all in there. This blog has also helped me to find my voice. It’s about being authentic, and truthful. So what’s the secret sauce that’s missing in the novel?

In an attempt to discover the answer, I decided to read other people’s writing to see if I could discover what gives them their distinctive voices. I’ve been working through Earnest Hemingway’s short stories, I picked up Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, and Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane and American Gods. I’m not sure I’m any closer to an answer than I was when I started, but at least I’ve been entertained.

Hemingway isn’t without poetry, he’s just concise. Every word he uses is on purpose, direct, meaningful. Maupin is charming, and owes his success to his deft handling of his characters – they jump off the page and immediately offer you a coffee, a cocktail, or a joint, depending on who they are. Gaiman has an amazing ability to take you into alternate realities – realities that could be just under your nose – in a way that you willingly hop on his carousel without a backwards glance. I am now sufficiently familiar with these writers that I could probably identify their writing from a paragraph or two – a literary line-up.

Is that what a writer’s voice is? That thing (whatever it is) that makes them immediately recognizable to their readers? Do I have that? I don’t know. I suppose I’m not in a position to judge – that would be up to the people who read my work.

As much as the idea of finding my voice intrigues me, I am also wary of the trap I could fall into so easily. A trap that says I have to put on a persona to make my writing interesting. It is true that I often feel as if the regular me and the writer me are two different people, which is apparently quite common. Margaret Atwood, in her wonderfully insightful book “Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing” says this:

“What is the relationship between the two entities we lump under one name, that of “the writer”? The particular writer. By two, I mean the person who exists when no writing is going forward – the one who walks the dog, eats bran for regularity, takes the car in to be washed, and so forth – and that other, more shadowy and altogether more equivocal personage who shares the same body, and who, when no one is looking, takes it over and uses it to commit the actual writing.”

The trap is the belief that the “writer” in me is someone entirely different from myself, like a character I made up instead of the person I become automatically when I sit down to write. The writer in me is a different version of me – more thoughtful, more particular, more willing to entertain wild ideas – but it’s still me.

Here’s another thought. Of course every artist goes through the process of finding their “voice”, but I’ve recently had the epiphany that even singers must go through it as well. I used to think that the singers you hear on the radio just sang the way they did effortlessly; they obviously work with vocal coaches and are generally more knowledgeable about singing than the average person, but their voice was their voice and that was that. Now I think that’s wrong – singers must go through the same process as writers or painters or actors – the process of uncovering their authentic voices. This thought made me realize that I never gave myself a chance to be good singer (I was a decent one, once, but that was all) because I never loved my own voice. I wanted to sound like what I thought I should sound like, not like what I really sounded like. So when I failed to sound like what I thought I should sound like I gave it up. I’m sorry I did that now; I could have enjoyed that part of my life so much more if I had accepted who I was and not tried to be something I wasn’t. I thought my authentic singing voice was inferior to my ideal. Maybe it was, but because of this belief I never gave my own voice a chance to truly be heard.

All of this has led be back to where I started, which is that I can’t get hung up on trying to be something I’m not. I have to trust that I will discover what I need to know about myself as a writer through the act of writing.  Trying to define and interject my “voice” into my work is, I have decided, a potentially dangerous waste of time. I now believe that instead of chasing my voice, if I keep working at it and being patient, like all things worth having, it will come to me.

P.S. I’m the one in the top right corner.

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Thanks for reading my blog!  If you want to know more about me and my journey, check out my book “Everyday is Saturday” on Kindle.  The book is part diary, part memoir, about the first year after I was laid off from my dream job.  I think it has something to say to anyone who is struggling with change.

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Showing Up

typewriter

I’ve been reading a lot of books lately both by and about writers. A good friend recommended “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield to me some months ago in response to an entry in this very blog. I found a little book by Margaret Atwood titled “Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing” when I went looking for the Pressfield book. Last week I purchased Stephen King’s “On Writing” and finished it in one sitting. Each of these books has been revelatory in their own way, and each has helped me shape my thinking around what it means to be a writer. They have also shown me that the struggle I face is the same one every person who wants to be a writer faces at some point or another.

Mr. Pressfield talks about a force he calls “Resistance”; a natural force that actively works against us when we pursue our passions. Some might call this power self-destructiveness, some might call it evil, some might even ascribe its workings to those of Satan and his tempters – whatever you call it, the end result is the same, which is that a constant war is being waged against us when we strive to achieve something noble or purposeful in life. We meet no resistance if we choose to pursue activities that are not aimed at making the world a better place or creating beauty; that we can easily do. It’s only when we reach higher that we run into this Resistance.

Mr. Pressfield doesn’t try to explain why this happens; that’s something best left to theologians and philosophers. He knows it doesn’t matter why. The only thing that matters is that we recognize how Resistance works and we find ways to combat it. The one sure way he knows to fight it is to show up, every day, whether you feel like it or not.

Stephen King says much the same thing. His tenacity as a young writer was truly impressive; he kept at it and never lost his joy, even in the face of what others would consider to be overwhelming evidence that he was never going to make his living as a writer. He talks about his process as well as the process used by other writers. The thing they all have in common is that they keep showing up.

What do I mean by showing up? I mean just that – showing up and doing the work. Being counted as present. Having your mind and your body focused on the same task at the same time. Living on purpose. Not getting distracted. Not buying into all the excuses readily available that keep us from doing what we were meant to do – big excuses and little ones.

“I have a cold” is an excellent excuse to shut off my computer and go upstairs and take a nap. I’ve thought about doing just that at least a dozen times today, because I do have a cold. The truth is, I don’t really feel all that bad today. I did feel badly yesterday and spent most of the afternoon in bed. But today, Monday, I’m here. I’ve done the work I needed to do for the day, and I decided I would take a few minutes to work on my blog entry that I usually post on Tuesdays. As soon as I opened a new, blank document on my screen a little voice said “This can wait – you can do this tomorrow. Why don’t you go take a nap? All your other work is done; you deserve to take a break. You’ll feel better if you take a nap now. Don’t you have a conference call at 9:00 tonight? Go – it’ll be fine. You have a cold, after all!” I almost gave in to that voice, the voice of my Resistance. She’s good; she makes sense. She may even be right about some things sometimes. But she’s always on at me about how I deserve to “take a break”. That’s how she gets me, through my own sense of pride in what I’ve accomplished. Look at what I’ve done today! Isn’t that awesome! I deserve to knock off now and go watch some TV! I’ve earned it!

It is extremely difficult for me to persuade myself that I don’t deserve something I deem to be a “reward” for my hard work. To view “taking a break” as a negative thing when I’ve been going at it non-stop for hours. To convince myself to keep going when I believe I am entitled to shut down and goof off. But I see now what these writers are talking about – you have to keep going, even when you don’t want to. You can’t sit around waiting to be in the mood, or for your muse to show up, or for circumstances to be perfect. Stephen King wrote “Carrie” in the laundry room of a double-wide trailer on a typewriter he balanced on a child’s desk on his lap. I’ve told ten people that story since I read it because it just blows me away. That’s showing up. I don’t actually like Stephen King’s novels (I don’t enjoy horror as a genre – it scares me), but the guy knows how to write.

I feel like I’ve taken a good first step towards showing up every day. Months ago when I was contemplating starting this blog I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the commitment. What if I don’t know what to write about? What if I can’t post something every week? The thought of committing myself to a weekly deadline intimidated me and I almost didn’t do it. Obviously I changed my mind, because here we are nine months later, and I’m still going. The surprise to me has been that it hasn’t been as difficult as I had feared to banish the Resistance and file an entry every week. I’m encouraged by that.

I’ve started writing a novel based on events that happened in my own life many years ago. I’ve never made a serious attempt to write fiction, so it is even more intimidating to me than committing to this blog was. I’m finding that the writing is slow, almost painful; I’m reliving my life through the lives of the characters I’m creating, and it’s bringing up all sorts of deeply buried memories. I’m feeling a huge amount of Resistance to the work, and I’m giving in almost all the time. The battle is being fought every day. Most days I lose, but bit by bit I’m getting my feet under me. Everything I’ve read and everything I’ve discovered on my own tells me that the most effective weapon in the fight is just showing up. So, even when I don’t feel “ready”, I sit down at my computer and open the document. Almost fearing what I’ll find, I re-read a page or two to remind myself where I am. Next I think about the characters – who they are and what they want.

Then I close my eyes and start typing. That’s showing up.

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Thanks for reading my blog!  If you want to know more about me and my journey, check out my book “Everyday is Saturday” on Kindle.  The book is part diary, part memoir, about the first year after I was laid off from my dream job.  I think it has something to say to anyone who is struggling with change.

photo credit: Jeremy Brooks via photopin cc

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Love Language

Book Quote

I’ve always been in love with words, with their ability to take me places in my imagination that without their guidance I would never go.  I love how I can get so deep into the world of a book that, even after I put it down, my own world seems strange to me.  I love how phrases from songs or stories or poems step off of the page and keep me company in times when I allow my mind to wander around, looking at things.  I love how stories unfold their meaning through words, both read and spoken.  There is no limit to the heights and depths that language can take us.  Words have power – they have toppled governments and separated lovers.  They give us a way to make sense of our world as it is, and to try to make it better for ourselves and for those who will follow.  It is my greatest desire to be a wordsmith, a master craftsman, a painter and sculptor of words.  I want to create beauty and meaning in words from my heart in the hope that someone, somewhere may find solace, or inspiration, or joy from what I’ve contributed to the universe of language.

I’ve always been a good communicator.  Language has been a tool for me over the years; I’ve shown that I can use it to achieve the ends desired by former employers and current partners.  There’s nothing wrong with using language in this way; it’s part of the reason we have it.  We speak and write to let others know who we are and what we need.  Until a child can tell its parents what it needs, the parents must guess at the source of a child’s cries in a process of elimination that may or may not be successful.   This is a very inefficient way of telling someone else what you want, and from the get-go people found better methods of conveying information.  The need to communicate is an imperative in the animal kingdom, but it is us humans who have taken it from the basic need to transfer information into using it to explore who we are and why we are here.

So, my desire to create beauty from language is my own personal evolution.  I’ve always appreciated the artistry of language and marveled at its flexibility and nuance, but I’ve never really tried to use it to create beauty myself until recently.  Now I stand at the threshold of a new life, a new way of thinking about who I am and what I do and why I’m here.  I feel like I did on the first day of school – excited and scared, and intimidated by everything I don’t know.  Because what I don’t know about writing and being a writer is a vast dark sea, where every drop of water has meaning.  It is exhilarating.  I am a new person, with new goals and a new way of looking at the world.  I never imagined this would happen at this stage in my life.  It is an awesome gift, and every day now I wake up and look forward to dipping my paddle in the water and seeing where it takes me.

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Thanks for reading my blog!  If you want to know more about me and my journey, check out my book “Everyday is Saturday” on Kindle.  The book is part diary, part memoir, about the first year after I was laid off from my dream job.  I think it has something to say to anyone who is struggling with change.

photo credit: ZedZap via photopin cc

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