My ex always said he could compartmentalize his thoughts. This allowed him to set aside external stresses and go about his day. It allowed him to simply close his eyes and sleep at night within seconds. Another man recently expressed this to me, as well, in reference to his own daily stresses and trauma.
I used to think it was just a way to excuse not showing concern for others or not consider my feelings in conflicts, but probably it is a real thing. Some people can just shut off parts of their life or mind and focus on the less emotional tasks at hand.
I can’t. I have a mind that is the opposite of compartmented. If something gets in there—if something worries me, hurts me, or even brings me great joy—it saturates everything I think and do. I will think about that concern, hurt, or joy throughout my day, whether it be personal, political, or spiritual. As I wash dishes, fold laundry, walk the dog, work, attempt to sleep: every task is bathed in a soup of “but what about this thing that is pressing on or filling my spirit?”
I don’t know if this is the bane of the writer or if this is what makes writers, painters, etc., turn to their craft in the first place. I only know that, try as I might, I can’t set aside these thoughts. They turn into words. For some writers they turn into voices or characters. Lately, they have spilled onto the page or screen as poems in a vain (both meanings) effort to rid the mush that is my brain of these racing, raging, craving thoughts.
Poetry thus has become a highly selfish exercise for me. I might spend days honing a single poem of a few lines, not because I care what others think, but because it must express exactly what I am trying to communicate. I don’t care if you understand what I have written. I care that what I have written completely expresses the bath of hot confusion in which my brain is swimming.
If I write: “This love is—lacuna”
I didn’t write “this love is an empty space” because I don’t mean it is an empty space.
I meant, “this love is an empty space, a hole in my bones, holes in my every tissue.” Lacuna.
If someone has to look up “lacuna,” I don’t care.
If they don’t want to look it up, I don’t care.
I am not writing my poetry to please others. I am not writing my poetry to make the world a safer place for readers of poetry. If I’m lucky enough to reach anyone, that’s lovely. But that’s not my goal.
I am writing my poetry because I have no lacunae in my brain. I have no spaces or compartments to stash how I feel about someone or something. I can’t simply lock those things away and go on with my day. The closest I come to that is when I’ve had a couple of beers and, even then, it’s all I can do not to crawl inside myself and think of the thing that is in there, whatever that thing may be.
I sometimes envy the two men mentioned above and anyone else who puts the events of their lives in neat, little boxes while they function seemingly normally.
But, sometimes I wonder what will happen if all their neat boxes suddenly break open.
[I present this, not in a bid for sympathy or mere cri de coeur, (okay, maybe a little of those) but an honest solicitation for advice. You don’t have to be a writer or artist of any kind, I think, to perhaps have valuable input here.]
I have forgotten how to create fiction. Not the mechanics, though surely those are rusty and weak, but the soul and flow of my creativity are lost. I’ve watched them wash away like sand castles.
There are myriad reasons why this is the case and most don’t really matter (in terms of fixing the problem, that is). It only matters that it has happened.
I have forgotten how to open myself to the world, to pain, to the darkest, dankest crevices of my mind and spirit. I’d even stopped reading fiction because it made those things more accessible and frightening. Reading fiction made me feel and think, so I shrank from it. I am, at least, reading again, if only in snippets, and taking care not to feel and think.
Even if I could allow that stuff in, I wouldn’t know how to let it coalesce into something creative. I’ve lost the ability to sit in a quiet room or in nature and allow life to bounce around me until a story finds its way through my pores or percolates up from my gut. Instead, those moments of potential reflection and processing are met with trepidation followed by a mad grasp for an electronic device or the television remote. Barring “screen time,” I allow my thoughts to wander only to the most basic concepts: survival, future concerns, chores, loss, loss, loss.
These things cloud my head (with my permission) like a perpetual flu. If I were an addict, I could blame drugs or booze, but my addictions are the 3 x 5 screen in my hand and the constant reexamination of pain and rage. Better to binge on pixels and past hurts than to leave the chasm in my brain agape because I simply can’t properly fill it. The ability to simply be and think: lost.
Standing in the bubble of another human’s existence, attempting to feed off and gauge their being and psyche, then pull it like wool into fine thread I can weave into a fabric of character: lost.
Voices are just noises. Faces, mere images. Fragrances and textures are just smells and surfaces. My senses that once served me as a creator: lost.
I could chalk much of this up to age, disease, grief. Be done with it. Move on. I’ve lost other things. Much harder losses. Things I will never get back. Suck it up, Buttercup. But it is exactly because my creativity has always sustained me in my life that I need it now in the face of those other losses. I have good things in my life, but I still need this. I need to be a whole me for my family and the whole me is the one that writes. If I can’t find my way back to KC the writer: lost.
The Void. The Beast. The Black Dog. The Pit. Depression and Suicide are once again prominent in the news cycle. Once again, we swim through speculation and rumor in social media and the word “why” ricochets off Facebook walls and inside our heads.
When someone we perceive as successful, intelligent, wealthy, or otherwise gifted with all those things we think make people happy takes their own life, we ask, “Why him? He had it all?”
Here’s the short, sharp response: Why does cancer take one person and not another? When we ask that question we typically decide chance/a whim of Nature bestowed a bad illness on a good (successful/beautiful/wealthy/young) person. We should view depression no differently.
What? Yes. Please stop thinking of depression as “having a bad day/marriage/money problems/getting old.” Depression isn’t the devil. Nor is it some vague whine-fest because you haven’t gotten your way. It is a disorder and it is wrapped up in the way chemicals in our brain dictate our behavior. I am shorthanding here because it is complex and not fully understood, but depression is clinical, meaning it has a medical cause. The initial trigger may be situational (injury, stress, pregnancy, physical illness), but the result is a clinical illness.
Yet, when the celebrity takes his or her own life, we begin the fruitless and unsatisfying search for answers. When Robin Williams died, it was because he had a debilitating disease threatening his future. Kate Spade, according to so much pointless rumor, had marital issues. Kurt Cobain had everything to live for supposedly, so obviously Courtney did it. (Did you hear my eyes roll?). Now Anthony Bourdain has died and we ask why? Why this outspoken, energetic man with so much success?
Because: chemicals in the human brain.
I truly hate that depression has been labeled a “mental illness”. Oh, it is an illness. But to call it a mental illness slides it into the realm of a) incurable (it isn’t) and b) unknowable (it isn’t). It leaves people with the impression that people with depression, with this mental illness, are crazy and need to be shunned, can’t be fixed, and their “mental problems” are just too hard to deal with so Run Away, Run Away.
So, let me be forthright and let me talk about Mr. Bourdain for a moment as if he sort of relates to myself even though I know nothing about his particular situation.
I watched him only rarely. What I saw of him was, in outward appearances, the very opposite of me: loud, brash, opinionated.
Oops. Opinionated. So, not so opposite after all. As I read that character trait of his several times this morning, I realized something about all of us (humans) that is especially true of depressives; we have something to say and we need to be heard. Yet, we often feel as if we are screaming into a void.
I’m not saying this is specifically a precipitant of suicide, I am saying that ultimately, in our crises, a depressive is not someone wallowing in self pity and pain, but someone who IS in pain and feeling utterly unheard. In a life that is extraordinary, rich, beautiful, fulfilling and filled with love—none of that matters if you are not heard when you are hurting. NONE OF IT.
This is why I write. Pure and simple. I don’t write to create art. I have told myself that I do, but that’s bullshit. I write because, while I am a mouse in public, shy and so soft-voiced it annoys people, on the page I can put exactly who I am and what hurts (and what brings me joy). I am one of the most opinionated people you will ever meet, but unless I know you well, you will likely only ever see that in these pages (or a Facebook post).
I have moments when the chemicals in my brain say, “Sure, you are much loved by your spouse. Sure, you live in a beautiful place. Sure, your daughter and her family are happy, healthy, and financially stable. Sure, you are not grossly unhealthy. BUT you are an abject FAILURE.” In those moments, I need desperately to be heard.
I can’t tell you exactly why Mr. Bourdain or anyone else takes their own life (beyond that the chemicals in their brains are betraying them). I am not telling you that circumstances don’t play a role in their depression. Our pain is often (usually) triggered by very real concerns. But I can tell you this—in that crisis moment, when you aren’t being heard, when you believe no amount of talking or writing can express your pain enough to bring even one person around to understanding you, the chemicalsin your brain are winning. They can convince you that your loved ones really will be happier without you. (Because they won’t have to listen to you cry anymore. They won’t have to pay your medical bills or worry about the fact that you might off yourself.) They really will get over it. (Because you’re not much use to them as a depresso, so it’s like getting over a lost puppy, right?) They really will understand that your pain was too much to bear. (Because they saw that you were in abject misery like a dog that can’t eat or walk, right?)
I have been fortunate in that I have taught myself to flip the switch and shut out that screwy rationale through some mental gymnastics and meditative techniques. The ones who didn’t learn that, or learned it and lost their grip on it, they weren’t selfish or cowards. They simply couldn’t flip the switch and the chemicals won.
I ask again, with these latest celebrity deaths, rethink how you view depression. Perhaps do some reading. Talk to those who actually suffer with it and listen to them. The Pit is deep, but with more people understanding, perhaps those who struggle to flip the switch can be pulled out more often rather than succumbing.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John1:1, KJV))
In the original Greek, “Word” was “Logos” and it meant, among other things, reason and discourse. The writer (or writers) of the Book of John, used Logos to describe a spiritual entity, grown from the power of God’s reason. This Logos, this Word, had so much power that He came down in human form. Language in itself had power. Christians should understand this given the commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.” Exodus 20:7 (KJV)
Today, we rarely acknowledge the power of words. They are as throw-away as used tissue. They are “just words.”
Are these just words?
TRUMP: “Yeah that’s her in the gold. I better use some Tic Tacs [breath fresheners] just in case I start kissing her. You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful… I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything.”
BUSH: “Whatever you want.”
TRUMP: “Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”
I saw an internet meme that said that since these words were not actions, they weren’t so bad. The meme claimed, that these words expressed “what the person wants to be, not what they are.” Like, “I want to be a fireman when I grow up.” So, I guess, in this case, that means, “I want to be a rapist when I grow up.” Yes, that’s so much better.
Words, however, are not just words. Word are not separate from action for in their power they have action on us. We may not see it as physical/mechanical action, but they are not tissue or ephemeral fluff that disappears the moment they are spoken.
Those particular words spoken by the candidate create actions. Several.
This is a man that many people admire. A small population could see this as tacit permission to follow his lead. “He does it, so can I.” I hear the protests, already. “That doesn’t make it Trump’s fault!” Of course not. It makes it the fault of those cheering him on as a fine, upstanding citizen worthy of representing our country rather than condemning him for his behavior. It makes it the fault of those calling it “locker room talk” when it is, instead, an assault strategy. Say, “I wish I could just grab her pussy.” Fine. You’re a sleaze and you’re desperately lonely. You’re not evil. However, say, “Just grab her pussy. You can do it. You’re a star.” That’s an assault strategy.
In the population there are already perpetrators. Every one of them has just been validated by these words that were “just words” and by everyone who gives the speaker a pass.
Men like the old cowboy that molested me when I was twelve have just been validated. It’s all good. Boys will be boys. Just grab her by the… Yup. Perfectly okay to take what you want. Half the voters love him so half the country must agree with him and with me. Just words.
That validation has a flip side. The victims are being re-victimized. For those of us who can stand up and spit out the gall and the absurdity of it, we will go on, even though our pain and anger remains. For those for whom it is just too much pain to bear…my heart breaks.
To those who will continue to hold that candidate up as a paragon of virtue or even say, “Yeah, he’s an ass, but he’s good for the country!” or, as I saw the other day, “Fuck your feelings!” I pray you never have a daughter or granddaughter or any loved one that is harmed in this way. I pray it is never you.
Finally, let’s not forget the good guys. The men who don’t behave like people are trash they can use and throw away. The men who actually love and respect their partners. I know there are many on both sides of the aisle. They too are harmed by these “just words” and they don’t always know it. As a survivor, it becomes difficult to trust again when re-victimized in this way. We have to be able to look at the men around us and know they get it. We have to know we can trust them to protect us and that trust is damaged if they don’t get it. Especially when “every guy talks/thinks like that” rings through the air.
So, no, they aren’t just words.
A note to anyone throwing the Bill Clinton grenade. 1) Yep. He’s a dog. He’s not running for president. If he were, I wouldn’t vote for him. 2) If you’re going to point at Bill Clinton and his dog-ness (poor dogs!) then you MUST point at Donald Trump. You can’t use Bill Clinton as an excuse for Trump’s behavior. You can’t say, “Bill Clinton did this X years ago so Trump can do it now.” By that logic you can say, “Stalin slaughtered tens of millions of people, so we can slaughter tens of millions of people now” — that’s just stupid.
As a writer, I believe it’s my job to imbue my words with compassion, integrity, and reason to the best of my ability. We humans have been given this gift, this powerful tool, Logos, reason, that can be used to lift us up as a species, rather than humiliate and harm others.
As Christians, we were given Logos, the Word, and He had a lot to say about how to treat other people. I don’t recall “grab ‘em by the pussy.”*
You might have noticed (you probably didn’t, so I’m telling you) that I haven’t written an entry in quite some time. That isn’t strictly true. I’ve written multiple entries. I simply haven’t posted them. Most were typical writerly whining: grief, new house, more grief, lots more new house, topics too topical to discuss (Politics! Yuck! Outrage! Yuck!) None of what I wrote seemed to belong here. Either it contributed to the bile that everyone else was spewing or it was self-serving schlock. (Well, it’s a blog; all of it is self-serving shlock.)
We have a new home. It’s small and sweet and near the beach and I’ve never prayed through hurricane season so much in my entire life. It’s a joy and I wouldn’t trade it for any amount of money.
A pod of porpoises often comes close to shore near our new home. It seems, if you’ll forgive the anthropomorphism, that they are making fun of the fishermen on shore. At times one pod member performs something similar to a gymnast’s tumbling line, making its way through the trough between beach and sandbar with one leap after another. It’s not all fun and games, I’m sure. The pod is likely snacking in their high tide hijinks, mixing purpose with their play.
My purpose has finally shifted back to writing to a point.
The stressful and time-consuming process of setting up the house has slowed. I no longer spend my days looking for stuff for the house or ways to stuff the stuff we already have into the much smaller place.
The grief flutters in and out several times a day. Little reminders arise that I won’t see or hear my parents ever again. Momma and Dad come to me in my dreams in various ways—good and bad—that leave me near tears upon waking.
The national and international topical topics grind away on my sanity daily. Politics and its cohort Societal Entropy are driving me to wish I drank. I am attempting to cope with them by reading a book that stretches me considerably. Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy by Susan Neiman. It’s a bit like drinking vinegar to cure acid indigestion, walking on hot concrete to heal stone bruises, or hiring someone who bankrupted his own businesses to balance your books. Neiman poses these questions: “Can there be meaning in a world where innocents suffer? Can belief in divine power or human progress survive a cataloging of evil? Is evil profound or banal?”
Meanwhile, my news feed tells me about earthquakes killing hundreds in Italy, chlorine bombs dropping on innocents in Syria, and my fellow citizens arguing over how many flags one must wave to be a true patriot and whether one can sit during the national anthem. Nothing has changed in fifteen years. (“I’ll take ‘Banality for Beelzebub’ for $400, Alex.”)
Still, I have this idea, perhaps unrealistic, that at the end of this book, I’ll better understand a purpose for evil, unfairness, and complacency, or at least be better able to stomach it.
My best response might be to retreat to our little island home and watch for our pod of porpoises. I think they know the answer to the questions that book poses. Evil is just a function of being an animal on this planet and must be lived through (or not). Move on to the next shore. Play and dine in the waves.
There are wonderful days ahead in this sweet home by the beach. I do know that. Purpose and play, not just politics and banality. I am grateful for, if yet baffled by, my world.
How Saturdays would happen if the Big Blind Dog had language:
I awaken and get out of bed. My husband (hereafter known as Dad) is showering so I leave him in peace and head straight for the kitchen.
The kitchen is part of an open architecture, great room structure with a large portion dedicated to a den area. In the den sits a plump, oversized couch known as Dog’s Bed #1. As I cross the threshold from bedroom to great room, Big Blind Dog (BBD) lifts his blocky brown noggin, eases one front paw off the couch, then another and, bum still planted on the cushions, looks at me. Well, as much as he can be said to be looking. He is listening to find out who exactly has come through the magic portal.
“Good morning, baby boy,” I say, and close the door behind me.
“Oh. It’s you. I suppose you’re going to give me breakfast.” BBD heaves his wide load up, stretches with back legs tall on the couch, causing a whistling intake of air into his back end, and hops down onto the cold tile. “Do get on with it. It’s been two hours since my automatic feeder gave me kibble and I’m famished.”
“I love you, too,” I mumble and shuffle into the kitchen where I ladle one heaping tablespoon each of pumpkin and yogurt into his food bowl, but not quickly enough to prevent a puddle of dog drool on the floor.
“Where’s Dad?” he asks, as he licks yogurt off his nose.
“He’ll be out in a minute.”
“Not good enough. I must register a complaint.” BBD turns away from my loving pat on his back and bumps his pumpkin-yogurt mug against the wall on his way to the magic portal and where he begins to whimper. “Oh, Dad. Please come out. I’m so lonely. There’s no one here but the lunatic woman who curses loudly and often. Please. Please. Please.”
I start my coffee and ignore the doggy drama though it increases with the familiar sounds of my husband’s routine as it nears completion.
The portal swings open.
BBD leaps for joy, raising his rear end slightly off the ground with each bounce like an obese bunny. “Dad. Dad. I’ve missed you so. It’s been forever. I thought you were never coming out. Life without you is drab and empty. Let’s go to the kitchen where we can be happy and eat and dance and bark and drool together forever.”
Dad winds around drooling dog and bouncing dog and nibbling-at-the-fingers dog, the many-in-one dog. In the kitchen, BBD leads him to the biscuit jar. Dad does as he has been trained, picks out a large biscuit and gets to work in his front-room office.
I sit in the den with my coffee—or rather I try to.
BBD walks to the back door. “Mother. I must go out now. Let us not disturb Amazing Dad. He is far too busy and important. This is your job.”
I’m a writer who works* out of my home.
I am always available to my dog, my husband, the Fed Ex driver, geckos that get stuck in the house. I try to be available to my grown daughter via telephone when she needs me.
With this availability, I didn’t expect my dog to be so much like a toddler and decide that I was just too danged available.
Every stay-at-home parent (SAHP) experiences it, that moment when the working parent comes home and the young child behaves as if they have been left ignored and unfed for ten hours by the hopeless and useless SAHP. But honestly, my dog?
Lately, it seems more and more the case, for BBD. Yes, I am more focused on writing now, but a lot of that focused time is on the couch, some part of BBD pressed up against me as I work. There are no fewer treats from the biscuit jar. Quite possibly there are more than when I was working on my MFA. There are no fewer walks. I pet and cuddle with him often, but I don’t crowd him. I am working on decreasing the cursing and if I do curse, I ask forgiveness with a treat. All it takes is a whispered profanity for him to act injured.
Yet, when Dad comes home from work, a new and grand world has opened up and life is wondrous again. While when I go out for morning errands and come back home, BBD herds me to the kitchen for a treat but that’s about the extent of it. No joyous bouncing or finger nibbling.
Don’t get me wrong. I know he loves me in his canine fashion. Much of the time, when his initial excitement over my husband’s arrival has ebbed, he comes to sit with me. Like the toddler who adores the working parent but relies on the SAHP for lunch and dinner, BBD knows who fills the food bowl every night and sits on the patio with him every morning.
This sounds like just a whinge about the dog not appreciating me as if he were capable of understanding the concept. Of course, I know he isn’t. I don’t know why a dog or a child attaches such importance to the arrival of the away parent v. the available parent unless it is some reptilian-brain fear (perhaps more to the fore in the dog) of the away parent not returning.
This is simply the statement of a truth. I sit at home and write all day (well, much of the day) several days a week. I don’t have a “real” job because my body doesn’t allow that but also because, truly, writing is what I have always wanted to do. I’ve been blessed to be able to do this. I am thankful for this. I admit, in my darker moments, when the dog brushes me off in favor of the Dad, when the kids don’t have time for us, when the husband has to work late, when the latest rejection hits the inbox, when I simply look at the page and see tripe instead of the quality writing of which I think I am capable, in those bleak moments I experience complete despair. What value do I have? Is it my purpose in life solely to let the dog out to do his business? God knows, it’s a job I want to do because I adore his fuzzy little snoot. But is it all I’m good for? Well, that and washing dishes and laundry?
I keep telling myself that the raft of emotions I am floating on day to day is a result of the sea of grief still surrounding me since Momma died. That my sense of worthlessness, my fears of the future, my anger with my loved ones, my disgust with the world as a whole, is all a result of those battering waves. That it is not rational.
Believing my precious dog loves my husband more than he loves me (or vice versa) is not rational. He’s just a dog, for God’s sake. But grief is not rational.
*as much as writing and not making money off of it can be called “work”
From Blue Star Publishing’s Adult Coloring Book: Stress Relieving Patterns
In the past six months or so I’ve done a good bit of coloring. I’ve found time for Hardanger embroidery. I’ve read a dozen or more books (I’m a slow reader), countless internet articles, and comics out the wazoo. I’ve developed a healthy daily yoga habit, learned to cook my lunch (actual cooking) almost every weekday, and while I don’t sleep well at night, I often make up the time the next day. I’ve critiqued the work of other writers (at their request, though I’m behind on that) and submitted (had rejected) two short stories. I’ve even attempted Zentangle—there was nothing Zen about it for me.
What I haven’t done is make any significant progress on my novel.
I don’t intend this post to be a whine fest – merely observation. Every effort to write a blog post, personal letter, notes on The Book, journal entry, etc., has been a lengthy probe into what part writerly fear, grief, clinical depression, and rage play in my lack of progress.
I am stuck in an “infinite while loop.” If you’re not familiar with computer programming terms, the infinite loop, or unproductive loop, is pretty simple. It’s a piece of code, usually an error but not always, in which the programmer set up an instruction up thusly:
If X is true, then do Y, where X is always true.
Here’s a simple DOS version.
The code above will repeatedly follow its instructions. “I’m at :A. Oh look, I’m supposed to go to :A. I will now go to :A. I’m at :A. Now I must go to :A again.”
You get the drift.
When you are using software and it “hangs up” and you have to shut down your computer or give it the ol’ “three finger salute,” you have probably stumbled on an infinite loop.
So here I am at :A, where :A equals me relentlessly and ineffectually sorting out my lack of motivation.
I have, in the last few days, “set an intention” during my yoga sessions to be kind to myself. To stop beating myself up because of my perceived failures. It’s hard. I’ve been beating myself up since childhood. I’m an expert at emotional masochism. Yet somehow, I must find a way to both release myself from the stranglehold of obligation and revive my desire to write at the same time. I can only guess that not hating myself for what I haven’t done is at least one place to begin.
My title to this blog post is misleading in a way. I did not at all tackle the subjects of depression, stuckness, or even grief. I’ve mentioned them only because they exist here in this loop from which I am trying to break free. In acknowledging them, I hope to get to the self-preservation that my subconscious thinks the loop is providing but is, in fact, chipping away with each iteration. That self-preservation is, is it not, what the writing is for? Rather than letting the loop determine how I will conquer the depression, stuckness, and grief, the pen must rip through that loop and conquer them for me.
In the search for the ultimate imagery for our work, writers dredge up memory and metaphor that surprise and thrill our readers, that surpass cliché. In particular, I struggle with the language of sound and smell because I tire of the common metaphors and descriptors of these senses.
An example: In my thesis, I wrote of a storm that “mumbled” and a note appeared next to it, “grumbled?”
Mumbled. That’s what I meant. I didn’t mean that it grumbled and growled like a beast overhead or an angry old man. I meant that it mumbled like an indiscernible conversation. I was trying to show that it was not imminent. Perhaps if I’d spelled it out that way, it would have worked, but I worry such labored metaphors detract and distract from the action at hand. “A distant storm mumbled, sounding like a conversation in another room.” Meh. I’ve just lost my focus on the fact that my character is lying on a hillside with possible broken bones. Do I worry about how the storm is mumbling by dragging out the metaphor? I changed it to avoid the problem, but I didn’t like going to “grumbled” because I’ve heard a hundred other writers (well, perhaps ten) use that same expression. I’m sure there are other options but at the time, I was just trying to finish a thesis. The point remains, when and how do we break free of what is expected of us in terms of imagery/description vs. what we are trying to communicate? And, of course, what are we willing to do for the critic who comes back and says, “Huh? What does this mean?” So, I keep searching for ways to express these ideas. If “mumbled” doesn’t work, what will? What gets across the idea that a storm is making noise far away without being cliché or common?
To find these ideas, we search in our everyday life, of course. For me, that can be a challenge. I am somewhat housebound. I hate to use that term. Let’s say, “restricted.” I can tolerate some sun, but not a lot. I am perfectly ambulatory; my husband and I walk a couple of miles a night. We fish early mornings and evenings when we take vacations. I’m not stuck in a bed 24/7. I just have some limitations. I can’t go jogging in a park or hiking in a canyon or the woods in midday. I can’t launch a canoe at 9 a.m. and return to shore at 3 p.m. (though I would love to do so). My ability to gather data then is limited to grabbing at bits and pieces as I move from one place to another or in the little two-hour swatches of the world fabric I get here and there.
I get a surprising amount of data from the nightly 1.8 mile walks with my husband. Often, the familiarity of it leads to a certain numbness, but now and then I awaken to the smells and sounds.
On windy nights, each street has a life of its own. This street with its oaks and north-south facing has a stiff breeze and sharp sound. The wind pours unimpeded over the rooflines and sends the odd oak leaf skittering down the street. On another street, the wind is raked fine and soft with the needles of huge loblollies. It’s a ghostly sound that takes me back to childhood every time. Along the creek, the song of the frogs and the power lines mingle with cool air even in the hottest months. And on one street, the houses seem to stack up somehow and form a barrier such that, no matter the direction of the wind, the street is always a stagnant, stifling cave. At best, the very tips of the tallest pines will sway.
On still, damp nights, neighborhood smells bloom. Gardens of sweet or sulfurous blossoms waft through privacy fencing. Hints of Indian, Korean, Filipino, Tex-Mex, BBQ, and other meals leak through kitchen windows. Perfumed laundry fresheners puff from dryer vents. Fresh mulch and lawn clippings scent the walkways. Sawdust and diesel fuel clouds drift from garages. Then there’s trash night. After all those wonderful meals, clusters of “Ew!” sit on the sidewalk every sixty feet or so.
We pass from five to twenty-five neighbors, most of whom have earned a badge for Southern Hospitality. My husband smiles, waves and says, “How are you?” to everyone he sees. He often says, “Happy Saturday!” (Or whatever day is appropriate. Be prepared for “Happy Monday!” and go with it.) His smile is contagious and his friendliness near impossible to ignore. We have won over the most hardcore grumble-and-scowl walkers in our neighborhood. While we know the names of maybe five of these good folk, I believe they think well of us (him) and we trust them in an emergency. Many have dogs and if you have a dog, you can’t be all bad, right?
In all this walking and smelling and greeting and smiling, I am writing. Not literally walking along with pen in hand and composing, of course. Not even rushing in the door to jot notes (though that’s a good idea). It’s all been stored (theoretically) so when I come back to those metaphors like the storm so distant that it sounds like an indistinct conversation, I will have more writing fuel. I will (I hope) prevent myself from slipping into the usual “grumbling storms” or “flashing eyes” or “burgeoning” whatever burgeons.
It’s only a small piece of the collection process. I will always need more. Trips to the beach. Trips to the Hill Country, Las Cruces, Dallas, other parts of the state, the city, the bayou. Early mornings in my own backyard looking at my favorite tree (Happy Tree) and watching the hummingbirds drink from the lantanas while the blind dog tries to catch the fly that’s buzzing him. Still, it covers a lot of ground and for me, in my circumstances, I look for all the opportunities I can find.
The parts of the fountain pen that facilitate this capillary action from the ink reservoir to the writing tip (nib) are the section, tube, and feed. When something prevents the ink from getting to the feed, it is starved. A starved feed means your pen won’t write.
Can you see where this is going?
I’ve put out a few stories to contests (no wins) and journals (no responses) and I’ve asked a couple of people to read my work (no responses or limited responses). The reasonable me (she who is in control of 90% of my processor cycles, give or take) says of those family and friends, “They have their own lives. It’s hard to find time to read eight pages. You’re an unemployed hausfrau who has time for that stuff so don’t be hard on them.”
The petulant child who needs validation or at the very least, acknowledgment, says, “Damn! It’s eight bloody pages! At least nod in my direction.” The paranoid artist in me thinks, he or she read the eight pages, thought the they were awful and has decided it’s better not to say anything because he or she only has bad things to say. Of course, anything not acknowledged by contests or journals is obviously trash.
I write because I love writing, but I admit that I have a need for validation and every other writer I have met, save one, has had the same need. Not to say we need constant praise—just the acknowledgment that our work was read, considered, and perhaps some nugget of beauty or truth seen in it. Without validation, I suffer from feed(back) starvation. My pen won’t write.
So, recently I joined Scribophile and began contributing critiques. Last night I screwed up enough courage to submit something for critique. It was helpful to get some feedback. It remains to be seen if the critique environment will match that of my classes. I think, more important than the critique is a new sense of accountability. Knowing I was going to put something in front of people who could very well rip it to shreds, I chopped out some of the fluff. Not enough, apparently, but it’s a start.
Another benefit to a community like Scribophile is the process of critiquing others. In sizing up other works, I see my own flaws looking back at me. When I return to my stories, I can rework them more objectively and with keener vision. I’ve been tucked away in my cave with my red pen and my own work as a go-by for several months. Reading published works is important for learning what to work toward, but reading other works-in-progress reminds me of that we all have to edit and there are a variety of ways to do so.
I’d love to see some of my classmates find their way to the community. From what I can tell, quite a number of the workshopped pieces do get published. I’ll be happy if Scribophile can be my feedback supply but even if it isn’t, I think I’ll gain from it.
However, there are problems for someone like me. I am a slow reader and a verbose critic. This means that for every piece I want to post for critique, it takes me a great deal more time to earn the karma required than it likely takes others. I am ready to post a second chapter but I don’t have enough karma. It also means that I have to be careful not to make my writing life turn into my Scribophile life. I don’t need a Scribophile problem anymore than I need a Facebook problem. As with anything, it’s about discipline.
So, if you’re looking for feedback and your blog isn’t enough and your family and friends are sporadic at best, check it out and see what you think.
I do have a selfish motive in this. I’d like to see people I know show up there. I miss you guys and I always trusted your input. However, I also think it has the potential to help some writers. It’s not for everyone, I’m sure. I’m not even entirely sold on the idea for myself. Check back with me in six months.
Each writing day (most days) I work on some part of the Book that I know I can fix: editing the next chapter, rewriting, or writing a new section needed to make it all fall together neatly instead of sitting like so many puzzle pieces half-joined here and there. Some days I work other projects, letting my conscious focus elsewhere. I hope at those times that whatever I do with the other project is instructional for the Book at a later date.
Latte & Grand Place
As much as I feel I’m making progress, I fear the end product, no matter how well-structured, no matter how keen the turn of phrase, will fall flat for lack of one crucial element: conflict.
It has been an issue from day one. I’ve tended toward Jamesian efforts—not so much in prose style but in the sense that I spent/spend a fair amount of time in dialog and thought, and in observing the characters. Recently Writers Write posted this on their blog and I went through each question. I was brutally honest with myself and while I didn’t score in the lowest ranking, I have to answer, “Why are you not making things more difficult for your characters?”
The Book moves back and forth through time and I am careful to make the analepsis both relevant and conflict-filled in my rewriting. However, the present action is still essentially a yes to #7. Not so much a heart-felt conversation as a yelling match, but I don’t see it as making things terribly difficult for my characters. More importantly, I don’t see my protagonist as active and this has been a concern for some time. I have brought some conflict into the present time for her by introducing a sore point between herself and her loving spouse. Still, she is not “trying to achieve something tangible” but is, instead, trying to achieve something emotional. It is a book of emotion. One MFA committee member referred to it as a “quiet little book.”
I suppose that isn’t all bad, but I spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about it the closer I get to rewriting the denouement. I have set an arbitrary goal for completion by next summer (2015) if only because I’m not getting any younger. (Many thanks to my cardiologist for calculating my cardiac event risk yesterday and pointing out that lupies have cardiac inflammation that puts them at much higher risk than the general population and blah blah blah. Way to go, Doc.)
I fear that all those times when I stare into space in the middle of an otherwise productive writing session or doze off because the anxiety of failure overwhelms will sabotage my timeline. Of course, that fear sabotages me as well and the anxiety builds and…
Please, someone read this and tell me what you think about the conflict checklist. Here it is again: Conflict checklist. Suggestions for dealing with my problem would be appreciated. Or, if you think I’m overreacting to a fear, telling me that would be great. Any input short of “sod off, you moron,” would be appreciated.