Book Fever and Other Autumn Ruminations

If I saw the Hoarders tv show and one of their clients had nothing but books, I’d think: What’s wrong with that? Like the trundling out of sweaters and warmer socks, autumn sets my brain on fire with the compulsion to accrue books. My husband and daughter just roll their eyes at me and make jokes about my inability to leave the library or bookstores without a stack of acquisitions. I am happily surrounded by books and read incessantly. This is my childhood dream come true.

Unintentionally, I had prepared for a huge book bender. I updated my reading glasses, whittled down my schedule, and started to acquire books at an alarming rate. I’m looking forward to a winter of Oscar Wilde, Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, Helen Oyeyemi, James Baldwin, Louise Erdrich, Jonathan Lethem, Joyce Carol Oates, and any other writer who trips my fancy.

31522415The warmup to heavier tomes has been a lot of pithy reading. I read Austin Kleon’s trio of books (Steal Like an Artist, Show Your Work, Keep Going), Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals, and story story collections. Lesley Nneka Arimah’s short story collection What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky was full of thoughtful, if not disturbing, storytelling.

Blood CreekI also read another book sent to me by JKS Communications, Blood Creek by Kimberly Collins, an ambitious novel that wasn’t quite my taste, but will resonate with the historical romance crowd – those who like their vixens fiery and their men stoic and often criminal. It reminded me of the books I used to sneak out of my mother’s collection when I was 13 – like Rosemary Roger’s Sweet Savage Love, where the main character is selfish, but too waif-like with a cavernous decolletage to not get her own way, at the expense of everyone around her.

Writing is ramping up as well. I just finished the online Masterclass with Joyce Carol Oates. While her story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” is one of the creepiest stories I’ve ever read, her prolific career is an inspiration and her low-key but dedicated approach to writing resonates with me. 2019 has been a year of nearly constant rejection, from publications and even a mentor program. One would think I’d want to call it a day. But Ms. Oates has some wise words for rejection which I’ll paraphrase here: it’s likely a blessing when one’s work is rejected. It’s not your best work and you don’t want it out there. It forces you back to revisions again and again and again, until what you have left really is good.

*****

So I soldier on. And at the mention of soldiers, I just want to leave this public service note: Flag-worshipping does not make you a hero or a saint. As a vet who served for a wide variety of reasons, including an adolescent sense of loyalty to my country, I’m finding that performative patriotism in this country has gone off the rails – in the old sense, like nutter-level.

canstockphoto6552217I was on a treadmill at the Y the other day. In front of me, an older man was wearing a t-shirt with an American flag that said If this flag offends you, I’ll help you pack. I know it’s not good to wish heart attacks on people peddling on stationary bikes, but it briefly crossed my mind. If you’re a flag worshipper, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t flail about screaming that everyone else is being disrespectful to the flag and then wear it as a crackled, worn decal on your sweaty carcass. I mean you can, but the paramedics are going to have to cut it away to attach the defibrillator pads. I’m sure they’ll be respectful, though.

*****

37941609Fall is often a season that brings about feelings of bittersweet melancholy, much like being in your fifties and still trying to get published. It is a season, though, that begs for poetry. I consider myself a blogger, novelist, and short story writer, but on occasion I hail back to my adolescence and write a poem. Now they are less about being ignored by the boy I liked or morbid poems about dying and more about just fading away. I’m reading Adam Zagajewski’s collection of poems, Asymmetry and they are the kind of poems that make you ache just a little.

*****

It’s been such a tough year, for me, for we humans out in the world. Some of us manage to remain unscathed. We keep our eyes forward, don’t get distracted, know what we’re about on the planet. Some of us have been buffeted by the winds of chance – medical emergencies, financial crises, devastating diagnoses of our health, our portfolios, our relationships. Some of us have internalized the existential dread of what the future holds – dictators, natural disasters, scarcity, randomized violence. We’re taking the news intravenously and it eats away at our sense of wellbeing.

I need hope and so do some of you. Where do we find it? Where is the solace, the palliative, the hospice for the walking wounded? I find it written by authors who apply poultices through words, in the faces of people who love me, in telling stories, in walking with the crunch of leaves beneath my feet. We fashion our own life preservers and hope that it’s enough.

Meditation on a Banana and Writing

It’s been a year focused on mortality – hits and misses, losses and anxieties. Someone of my morose temperament is more likely to start self-medicating than rallying forth. Having given up on drinking and smoking years back and never really taken much to drugs, I’m left to my own devices, which usually involve excessive organizing, surliness, and voracious reading. Solitude has been a fleeting, rare creature for months now. Writing, the beast which I chase in my dreams, still eludes me most days.

15799151It is times like these when other artists save me. I just finished reading 842450Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work and Jill Krementz’s The Writer’s Desk. These are the kind of books – part inspiration, part instruction –  that you pick up when time and space seem to conspire against your best laid plans. Maybe it’s a hope that something is contagious in reading about other writers’ lives. I come away feeling less alone and more heartened about the piecemeal fashion in which I pursue writing.

Writing carries baggage for me. That baggage is full of mixed messages: the fears that I may never accomplish what I seek to accomplish and the realization that it all matters so little in the scheme of the universe. It is full of envy and self-loathing, disgruntlement and all manner of desperation. This can be heavy and paralyzing, lugging the baggage along into every writing session.

Like muscles that tighten into a knot, no movement is possible until you relax. There are meditation and Zen practices, most of which have now been repackaged and priced and sold along with a set of knives capable of cutting a car in two. The simplest of these practices, and I offer it to you absolutely free of charge, is to focus on the moment.

I had the most delicious banana this morning, but it took me a few minutes to run canstockphoto25301478through the overthinking that comes with anything I do. First I thought about the fires in the Amazon and wondered how they affected the bananas. Then I thought about how they were predicting that this particular kind of banana would be extinct in ten years, due to various fungi. Extinction made me think about the climate and Greta Thunberg and how adults, in their usually capacity as jackasses, were criticizing and mocking her this week for lecturing said jackasses on their climate paralysis. Then I thought about plastic and the fact that I can’t stop seeing it everywhere, with every product, without thinking about whales’ stomachs.

I was halfway through the banana.

Earlier in the week, I’d lectured a friend on catastrophic thinking and how imagining the worst thing that can happen is deleterious to one’s current state. I didn’t use the word canstockphoto65164533deleterious, but that’s how I’m telling the story. When we’re in the middle of a situation, our brains have this capacity to go completely free-range, snarfing down every bit of anxiety in its path. Bloated with neuroses and catastrophic thought, we rarely take action that alleviates it. Instead we eat ice cream, drink wine, binge watch TV or porn, smoke pot, go shopping, or rage online – anything that distracts us from the bloat.

Three-quarters through the banana.

If catastrophizing makes nothing better and churning in those thoughts brings us misery and paralysis, the only solution is this moment, this banana. It is delicious, I am enjoying it…it is delicious, I am enjoying it. It bears repeating, because already my brain is starting to think it is gone, what next?

And then it really is gone. I missed most of the joy – too busy letting anxieties ramble unhindered through my thought processes instead of having the visceral experience of eating a delicious banana.

30659Is it not so with any endeavor? How dense and rich would life be if we practiced being in the moment, having the experience, tasting the food, looking at the scenery, rolling words through our brains? Those sentences make me laugh. I’ve been reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. It’s made my prose a tad odd.

The point is, and I am pretending that I have one, is that this can be applied to writing as well. All the thoughts about publication or how it measures against others’ works – all the thoughts about never succeeding or maybe being too old to be in this game – all the thoughts of self-denigration and unworthiness. These take away from the moment you’re in – the writing of a delicious sentence. The picking of a word. The telling of a story. The befriending of a character. The joy of expression.

Write the words. Eat the banana. Be present.

 

Other Books for Inspiration:

Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chödrön

Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artist Process Edited by Joe Fassler

Room to Write: Daily Invitations to a Writer’s Life by Bonni Goldberg

Daily Rituals: Women at Work by Mason Currey

The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear by Ralph Keyes

Fearless Friday: Beginnings

I started this post series “Fearless Friday” several months ago as a way of sharing other bloggers’ and writers’ work, as I felt the need to be more generous with this space. I’d had the good fortune of a good-sized readership and wanted to spread the wealth. It landed with a thud in terms of contribution and required a great deal of work to put together. However, I can be a stubborn cuss and I think anything worth doing is not only worth doing well, but worth doing long term and with patience. So I start afresh…

It seems fitting to talk about beginnings. We often sabotage ourselves by measuring the present moment through the lens of the past or expectations of the future. Unwritten novels, blank canvases, and tunes only heard in one’s head – this is the outcome of not starting where you are and an inability to shut out the noise of a society that only recognizes endeavors in statistical outcomes. I’ve been thinking a lot more about beginnings and middles – which is essentially process, because that is where any creative person spends most of their time. It is that magical, invisible time when it’s just you and what you’re doing in the moment.

Welcome to Fearless Friday.

Feacanstockphoto13410470rless Fridays are about lives lived in spite of our fears, living a life that is about curiosity, compassion, and courage. If you just got published, something wonderful happened to you, you witnessed an act of kindness or bravery, or you have someone in your life who amazes you, drop your story into my contact page or email it to TheGreenStudy (at) comcast (dot) net and I’ll run it on a Fearless Friday. If you’re a blogger, it’s an opportunity to advertise your blog, but this is open to anyone who would like to share.  These will be 100-300 word stories, subject to editing for clarity and space.

Debut Novels

Over the last few years, my reading has taken on a particular intention – to teach myself how to be a better writer. At first, I delved into the “classics”, never wandering too far afield for fear that my literary education would have gaps. I’m over that. After Joyce and Faulkner and Hemingway, I’m so over that. While my reading has always been eclectic and organic (one book referencing another and another until I’m reading about hissing cockroaches in Madagascar), it is now done with notebook and pen in hand. No matter what I’m reading, I learn something new about writing.

44011737Last week, I finished reading Clifford Garstang’s The Shaman of Turtle Valley, a debut novel that explores cultural and family conflicts (and similarities) when a soldier brings his Korean wife home to Appalachia. What I enjoyed, and learned from most, was the author’s use of first person POV from each of the main character’s perspectives. This can sometimes go awry in a novel, but Mr. Garstang did a good job of writing characters with distinct voices.

This is the second debut novel I’ve read over the last few months, the first being The Fourteenth of September by Rita Dragonette. Both Garstang’s and Dragonette’s novels are by older authors with unique backgrounds – a fact that speaks to me for obvious reasons. The stories they wrote were engaging and kept me reading faster and faster in my anxiety to find out what happens.

Full disclosure: I was sent these books to read by publicists at JKS Communications who represented and were recommended by one of my favorite bloggers, Donna Cameron, with her book, A Year of Living Kindly. Also full disclosure – I’m a very critical reader and a working writer, so I do not write book reviews as a matter of practice. That people still send me books after I tell them this, just delights the hell out of me. I get to read books and talk about them and don’t feel compelled to pander. Yay me.

As a writer, debut novels are also wonderful learning tools. Most people don’t write a seamless novel out of the gate – it’s the nature of writing experience. The architecture of a debut novel tends to be more obvious than in a second or third novel. As a writer, I can nod my head knowingly when I see what the author was trying to do. I can see the inner workings of structure, the strengths and weaknesses, and discover solutions to problems in my own work.

Before the Debut Novel: Shitty First Drafts

First novels also make me think about courage and perseverance. The end piece of a creative work – the marketing and publicity, is the smallest sliver of the whole process. A novel that has been fomenting for decades, worked at for years, edited for months, is the crux of the writer’s life. That’s where the time is spent and the only way to spend that much time and love is to be invested in the process, not the outcome.

The surest route to halting all creative thought is to think about results – the one piece in the process over which a creator has very little control. When my head is full of those thoughts, it seems like a lot is riding on the opening sentence – a sentence that will now not be written because there’s too much pressure. I shut down. The birthplace of a writer’s block.

12543While I hope someday to have my own debut novel, I will forever reference Anne Lamott’s assertion in Bird by Bird that “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts.” I am learning to love my terrible first efforts – being in that space where I just sound stupid, like I’m writing a fifth grade essay about the Tower of London (it was dreadful and accompanied by even worse drawings). The willingness to be awful, in addition to reading with intent, has changed my writing for the better.

If you’re a creator, what thoughts stop you from beginning?

How do you counter that?

Any favorite debut novels?

Where the Ego Fears to Tread

I just finished reading an essay on Medium by Meghan Daum, “My Life at 47 is Back to What It was Like at 27“. I’ve been thinking a lot about change and the idea that who we were is always going to be who we are. For someone like me, who is always striving to be better – a better parent, a better writer, a better human, the idea that our essence will remain essentially unchanged throughout our lives bothers me. Perhaps I’ve begun to see the threads of my life that lead from the wood library floors where, at age 9, I’d sit with a pile of books, to the worn, overstuffed reading chair in my study next to a table fairly groaning with to-be-reads at age 51.

Yesterday, I stopped in the drugstore and for the first time in two decades, looked behind the counter to see how much cigarettes cost. It’s a new habit I’ve been practicing – trying to notice things that I don’t normally look at in my daily routine. There was a time when I knew exactly how much cigarettes cost. I smoked until I was 30. Even when I was broke in grad school, I’d scrape together the money (sometimes all in coin) to buy a generic pack of menthols.

canstockphoto13455198.jpgWhat I lost in lung cancer potential, I gained in weight. But in the intervening years since my last smoke, how much has really changed? Is it just the external trappings – from an apartment to a house in the burbs, from the worst girlfriend ever to a less-than-awful wife? From a dog caregiver to a cat caregiver? From someone allergic to children to someone who feels the awful, wonderful deep love for a child. From someone who bounced to whatever job paid more to someone who will be lucky to ever be paid again.

Sometimes it scares the hell out of me – what if this is it? And that question may be the thing that has definitely never changed. It’s the same startling thought I had when I was 18, 28, 38, 48…what if this is all I am? What if I never become a published writer? What if I continue to live an obscure little life? What if the potential I believed I had was all a myth? What if this is all there is?

It’s no coincidence that the heavies are catching me this week. I finally got the last layer of hair color sheared off. I’ve got a Dame Judi Dench thing happening on my head. And I can’t pass a mirror without being a little startled. All the color is gone, replaced by a silvery white. I rarely wear makeup and suddenly I have a better understanding of my grandmother’s blue eye shadow and intensely red lipstick. I am a faded photo of myself. I thought, well, this is me until I’m dead, just picking up more wrinkles and arthritis along the way. Get used to it. 

canstockphoto39088457.jpgAnd then I laughed. There are some things that haven’t changed – my smirking, dark sense of humor. My ability to have the worst thoughts and then let them go. The likelihood that I will be trying to self-improve right up to the moment of death. Oh look, her last Google search was “How to be more productive in hospice”. That in my deepest, darkest moment of despair, I have an inkling that I’ll have a new plan tomorrow.

I’m not the most mentally healthy person. I compulsively overdo everything – food, shopping, TV binging, saying “yes” – less and less as I age, but I can still put away half the kitchen on a bad day. I run a continuous cycle of depressed-okay-depressed-okay- mostly okay. I’m not particularly accomplished at anything, but I know a little about a lot of things and I spend a lot more time doing what makes me content than I did before. My special skills involve list-making, the ability to do heavy physical labor, swearing in several languages, rationalization of just about anything, and my inclination to occasionally bake good homemade bread.

As for the writing, well, there’s a lot of good writers out there and so much of what gets published is the result of hard work, opportunity, and luck  – a secret combo that no one ever really gets sorted. I’m still stuck in the hard work phase, or I should say the pre-hard work phase, because the hardest work is getting myself to do it. Once I’m there, everything is good. Getting there is worse than getting myself to the gym. In fact, I will sometimes work out to avoid writing. That’s wrong on so many levels.

It’s when the jokes get real that throw me off. Less haha-ing and more: oh, shit. Yes, this may be all that there is. Is it bad? Unendurable? Untenable? Not at all. I just feel a bit like a pissed off school teacher sometimes – she had so much potential. I suppose that most humans are guilty of not living up to their potential. I’ve been reading The Art of the Short Story by Dana Gioia and R.S. Gwynn, a very nice collection of short stories, that include not only the story, but a biographical summary of the author. I immediately notice when they’ve died. Atwood is still alive, Borges and Cather had long lives, but Camus at 47, Carver at 50, Chekhov at 44 (apparently I’ve only gotten through the Cs).

Panic mode. Oh my god, if I were them, I’d be dead. I’d have no stories to tell. I haven’t been writing my whole life. No one might ever now that I ever wrote anything besides this blog. Everyone has a blog. Who cares about that? Breathe. There’s nothing to be done now, except to keep moving along like you have the time. No amount of panic will make you write better. Now get back to that short story you’ve been putzing around with for a week.

As my teenage daughter puts it, why would it matter? You’d be dead. Yes, that little cynical apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Still, it matters to me now and regardless of the quasi-solipsistic existentialism that governs much of my personal outlook, part of me knows the power of words. What if my words are what someone needs to hear, to get them by a bad moment, to lift their spirits? It isn’t ego as much as it is paying things forward.

canstockphoto34158490.jpgSometimes I feel like my life was saved by books, that the right words at a particular time in my life, lifted me, gave me heart, taught me empathy, kept me from spiraling downward. Perhaps our essence never changes, but we complete the circle. The words that saved me rooted themselves, became part of me and grew. And now they grow beyond me. Not a bad way to head into the last inning – saying thank you, using my words.

 

Some Words I read This Week that I Enjoyed:

Raymond Carver’s short story,  “A Small, Good Thing

Made me blubber – not always the best selling point, but if you’re in need of a good cry, it’s a good shove in that direction.

Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

I’m not particularly interested in style guides – I use them as reference books for specific questions. However, I’ve just started reading this one and will likely read it cover-to-cover, because of the writer’s sense of humor.

Nothing Magical About It

I’m going to pull one of the struggling writer’s favorite procrastination tricks out of my hat today: writing about writing. And maybe a little self-loathing sleight-of-hand, some sawing in half of my writing time, juggling of all the wrong priorities, and the hypnotic allure of social media. My lovely assistant, Pete the Tomcat, will be licking himself disdainfully in the corner.

canstockphoto5631497It’s hard to admit that I’m a little stuck right now with writing. I know this because when I went to writing group today, I was full of insight and unsolicited advice. I get all sage and knowledgeable when my own writing has stalled out. Despite the kind and generous members of the group, I returned home irritated with myself and the sound of my voice. Take your own damned advice, lady.

At the bottom of this crockpot of simmering emotion, is a strong sense that I’m failing myself. I need to start fighting above my weight class. I write safely – cutesy stories that amuse, personal essays that if, by god, I haven’t mastered after 8 years, I may as well give up the ghost. The novels are still mostly unseen by others.

Tomorrow I’m gifting myself a day with no social media. Whatever rage and impatience that is borne of my personal frustration will have to pour itself into characters and story lines. Action will have to lead me out of this wilderness of self-loathing. I regard it as singular progress that I don’t just hit the bottle or eat an entire cheesecake or return to my halcyon days of chainsmoking while thinking deep, but unwritten thoughts.

I have to write myself right. See you on the other side.

canstockphoto17581973 (002)A special thanks to my writing group. Each time we meet, your generosity, humor, and bravery remind me of the many reasons why I write. Thanks so much!

Trying Too Hard

I’m starting my third day on a focused work schedule, working on short stories and editing. Yesterday day was novel day and the day before I composed and scheduled my blog posts for the week ahead, as well as, and I blush as I write this, prepped a slate of Tweets for Twitter. That’s right – I have to write and edit them in advance – the equivalent of rehearsing a speech in the mirror. I tell myself that I’ll only have to do this until I get better at it, but I suspect the short, quippy, fleeting nature of Twitter is just not in my wheelhouse. I like full sentences. I hate emoticons. I refuse to put the app on my phone. I think about quitting it every time I use it.

GarbagcanpaperThis is not the post I had planned on posting. Inspired by the work of Rebecca Solnit on journalism, Dani Shapiro on personal truths, and an essay by Lu Hsun called “This Too Is Life”, I saw the threads of a post emerging about the responsibility of the storyteller. It was very high-minded and thought-provoking, with obscure references and some cutesy self-denigration, just so I wouldn’t seem like a literary snob.

So all those voices in my head were competing on the page. I had three, four, then five paragraphs. And it was a clunker. I was my high school writer self – all thoughts and finger-wagging and terrible structure. The output of trying too hard always looks like I’m trying too hard. There’s some authenticity in that, but no reason to impose it on a reader. You’re welcome.

Part of the paralysis and bad writing is borne out of my decision to be a “working writer”. Nothing is more damning than approaching the blank page with the weight of 51 years of rootless potential and desperate ambition. I keep missing the lesson that the things that I try least at seem to render the most reward. I put my nose back to the grindstone, flailing about with the most awkward and tiring efforts.

This is, in essence, the story of my life. I will work my ass off with little to no reward but that of having done the thing. Some days, it’s just not enough. But yay, I persist. When I was in high school, I ran track. I was slow. Very slow. So they put me in the 3200 meter run. You would score points for the team if you just finished, regardless of speed. For my senior year at the track awards banquet, I got the award for Best Effort. That’s going on my tombstone.

canstockphoto0404119I’m reading Angela Ducksworth’s Grit with a degree of irritation that comes when someone tells you something you’ve already rationalized for yourself. Yes, persistence and perseverance can win out over talent. But it can also be damned exhausting and demoralizing. I know I will always try, but maybe I wonder if need to dial it back a bit. I’m one of those people who’s always being told to relax. I respond to this in a laid-back and chill manner – bite me.

It occurs to me that if you put too much effort in, too much pressure on yourself, you’re bound to overshoot the mark. This would appear to have the same outcome as not trying at all, but I know there is a difference. Plotting and planning and working at my writing in any sort of methodical way is difficult right now. I’m too used to being a mood writer and I may as well plan on missing the mark for awhile. Discomfort is necessary for growth. 2019 is likely to be the most uncomfortable year ever.