Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Not-So-Restless Writer?


It was Sunday morning, nearing noon. The day was bright and blue, and I knew this because I could see it from my window at my desk. It dawned on me then, as I watched a cardinal hop around a tree outside, that I had been sitting at my desk for nearly three days straight - and even weirder - I was okay with this fact. It was a strange feeling, when I realized I had only been between school, home, and the gym for over a week. I looked at my royal blue Rav 4 sitting in the driveway, looking lonely, and I remembered the girl I used to be, not all that long ago.

In Miami, I couldn't go between point A and point B without stopping to take a quick dip in the ocean or meeting a friend for an impromptu walk or yoga session. I was the girl who always had a bathing suit, towel, high heels and a little black dress in my trunk. Oh, and my hula hoop, of course. I lived out of my car, quite seriously. I was on the m-o-v-e, all the time, and my car was my closest confidante.

My bicycle is my main form of transportation now. It takes me all the places I need to go: from my house to my office, from my office to the gym, from the gym back to my office, and from my office, home sweet home. Sometimes, I take my speedy two-wheeler for a spin around Lettuce Lake Park about a mile from my house.

My world has shrunk to a 1.5 mile radius. That is insanity to me.

What's even more insane is the fact that I couldn't be happier about this. To be honest, the nesting habits crept up on me, like a slow fog. It started with the clearing of the desk. And then the growing of the plants. Now I have bird friends outside my window everyday and it's as if, all of a sudden, I woke up in the clouds, and I never knew I was being lifted away.

But I guess this is the reason why I came to grad school, after all. To drop out of my life of chaotic excitement, and drop into a new, quieter one - one that strives for the beauty of authentic expression.

I spoke to my friend in Costa Rica last night. He's used to my spur-of-the-moment trips south.

"When are you coming back down here?" he asked. In the background, I can hear the sounds of the rainforest all around him.
"You know," I said. "I really don't know." Silence. "Things feel... different, now."
"Hmm," he said after a while. "Estas comprometida." Comprometida - to be engaged, committed.
"Yes, I think you're right. Estoy comprometida."
"Eso es bueno!" he said with a laugh. He's an artist too so he knows what it feels like to be on fire about your craft. He knows about this rabbit hole, he knows it well.

That Sunday afternoon, I could have sat at my desk all day. But, it felt sacrilegious to let such a perfect day slide by my window without getting out there and communing with the elements. I had to honor that other part of myself, the wild one. So I called up my friend Sarah and we made a date to watch the sunset on the beach. It felt strange to drive my car across the long bridge to St. Pete, weaving between traffic and listening to sugary pop songs on the radio. But it all made sense when I plunged into the cold waves, tinged pink from the setting sun, releasing my body to this saltwater altar.

A fellow free spirit

Friday, November 21, 2014

Writing: A Service Industry

This week was our last Creative Nonfiction class with Heather. The next time we meet, on Dec 3rd, we will be celebrating the birth of our new chapbooks! Aho!

The secret swamp across the street from my house
We are all sad to see this semester come to an end. I'm still in denial about it. Heather took the chance to repeat some wise things she had told us towards the beginning of the semester and I felt like I was hearing them with new ears. In a way, I am a different person than the one who started this program back in August. In any case, you can definitely say I've been reborn as a writer...

First of all, Heather reminded us that it's not about the writing. We're all good writers; that's why we're in this program. We could sit down and write beautiful prose all day long. That's not enough.

It's about the story. 

As writers, we work in service of story. We bow down to it. Everything we write must serve the greater story. If it does not move the story forward in some way, it's irrelevant and needs to come out. Even if it's the most beautiful sentence in the world. Especially if it's the most beautiful sentence in the world. (As Faulkner said, kill your darlings.)

Of course, it's not that easy. A story is never just what you think it is on the surface. A girl wants a horse. That's just the superficial set-up. But what we as writers need to figure out is - what is the deeper yearning happening underneath this piece? What does this little girl really want? Does she wish she was free from the abuse she experiences at home? It's always about something more. And it's our job to find that thing and bring it to the page.

"Writing is a service industry," Heather likes to say. "Our readers are our customers, and we have to give them what they want."

And what do they want? A good story.

It's just that easy, right?

Right.

Another gold nugget  that Heather passed on to us on our last day of class was this one -

The story will always be smarter than you. 

If you come up against a trouble spot or a snag in the writing, refrain from getting angry. Aggression will not get you through this. Instead, be open. Meditate on it. Listen to the piece. It will guide you to the truth.

The slowest way is the fastest way, my friends.

These flowers will soon be tomatoes!
Garden going strong

Friday, November 14, 2014

Raw Materials

As you can see from this picture, I have been desperately in need of a new laptop for some time. My nifty netbook crashed on me this summer, just after I uploaded all of my videos and pictures from a music festival, of course. So I dug out this old beast, the laptop my grandfather gifted to me when I started college back in 2005. It’s been good to be over the last 9 years. Very good, even, just by the simple fact that it’s still alive and running. Not running well, I’ll give you that, but the heartbeat is still there.


Last weekend, I went to Tiger Direct to look at new laptops. While I was there, I spoke to many (unhelpful) salesmen, who didn’t really seem like they wanted to sell me anything at all. Still, there were some decent computers selling for decent prices. I contemplated purchasing a shiny Dell, or maybe this refurbished HP? But something held me back. I left the store empty-handed, promising to continue my search another day.

But today it dawned on me. I don’t actually need a new laptop. I have this fabulous desktop at school with which I can watch all of the Buzzfeed videos that my heart desires. (Oh yeah, and do a little work, too.)  And I've got my prehistoric IBM still trucking along... Do I really need another machine connecting me to the energy-suck that is the internet? Is this connection to super-fast internet a priority in my life – in the work I’m trying to do as a writer?

I started to think about what freedoms a new laptop would afford me and I realized that they were all superficial. I can’t actually say – I need a laptop so that I can be a real writer. No, a writer only needs two things: a pen, and some paper. This is what I’m learning in graduate school. You want to be a writer? Grab a pen, buy a blank notebook, and have at it.


My writing guru, you all must know who I’m talking about by now, insists that all writing must – MUST – be done by hand. If you want it to be good, that is. She says she can sniff out those writers who use a keyboard and those who still draw words on the page. (And if you read my last post, you know it’s true. She’s magic, what can I tell you.)

Not only must all writing be done by hand, but all RE-writing must also be done by hand. Revision means to see again. Your mind sees differently when it’s making words appear on a blinking screen than it does when you’re coaxing words out of a pen.

Like the way we coaxed vegetables out of the soil using our bare hands back when I spent my days bent over rows of arugula or daikon radish. Everyone knows they taste better that way. It's just a fact. Yes, we did use a tractor, but that was only for the menial (editorial) work – the weeding between rows, the stirring of soil before planting to disturb weed seeds. We did not trust this tractor to place our baby plants into the ground for us, nor did we trust them to thin out the lettuce, or weed around the super-sensitive winter squash. These tasks could only be done by hand.
Joy Harjo watches over me as I write...




So for now, I’m sticking to my notebooks and Bic pens. When the pages fill up and I’ve done my subjects justice on the page, then I will turn to the computer. Having fully explored every caveat of my story, I will transform my messy handwriting into this standardized font so that my story may have a life outside of my head, outside of my notebook. And for that, my old clunker is up for the job.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Play Right // Write Play

I've been thinking a lot about play lately, in all aspects of my life. Naturally, my teacher brought it up during out workshop class this week. She mentioned a few books to check out so I picked up Homo Ludens at the library by a Dutch cultural theorist, Johan Huizinga. Homo ludens means "man at play" or the species that plays (although we aren't the only ones). 

Play is an integral part of our childhood and an important factor in our human development. Huizinga argues, though, that it does not end there. According to him, "play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing.” (Huizinga 1)

According to him, these are the 5 characteristics of play:
  1. Play is free, is in fact freedom.
  2. Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life.
  3. Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration.
  4. Play creates order, is order. Play demands order absolute and supreme.
  5. Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it.




My writing teacher, Heather, says we must write the unthinkable (write without thinking), and if as Huizinga suggests that "play only becomes possible [...] when an influx of mind breaks down," then perhaps ... 

writing is play? 



She had us do an exercise in class on Wednesday where we were to draw cats - while I sang to the class. The moment she told the class that I would be singing while they drew, blood pressures rose. "Imagine if you were a child again, and your teacher said that a classmate was going to sing while you draw," she said. "Would you be afraid for that person? No. You'd think it was the most natural, normal thing in the world."

We have replaced play with fear - fear of messing up - because we have been tricked into believing that there is a right and a wrong. 

Huizinga writes: "The play-mood is labile [i.e. easily altered] in its very nature. At an moment, 'ordinary life' may reassert its right either by an impact from without, [...] or by an offence against the rules, or else from within, by a collapse of the play spirit, a sobering, a disenchantment." (21)

We, as writers, must try our best to cling to that liminal space between our conscious and unconscious mind. We will be granted beautiful gifts if we can learn to stay in that space, and it will be apparent to our readers when we fall off it. For example -

This week, one of my pieces of nonfiction was workshopped in class. I produced that piece over several sessions of furious handwriting at my sun-drenched desk where I like to think I was "in the zone." ("The zone" is that place where you have stopped thinking - that place where play blossoms.) My classmates agreed that the writing read true and real. Heather had only one comment to make and I knew exactly what part she was going to point out before she said the words. "This took me out of the story," she said, referring to a part I had added after the fact, once I was typing up my story later on. She caught it! I had to laugh. You can't trick your reader...

Like with play, writing is neither good or bad. We must resist the urge to write from a feeling state. Rather, we must write from a state of playfulness, that place that is time out of time, no-holds-barred, perfect in its spontaneous creation.