Writing reasons revisited

Yesterday I finished reading Bird by Bird. It pushed and pulled at my writing heart. But mostly pulled. I was drawn towards seriously writing like I hadn’t been in years, then in the next paragraph I was totally repelled. I hoped throughout that she was being overly negative in spots, exaggerating the pain and angst of being serious about one’s writing. But my gut and my own past experiences told me that the negative parts were just as valid as everything else she said. But in spite of her stark honesty about writers’ ‘issues’ that will leave a reader fearful of losing whatever mental or emotional balance they possess, the net effect confirmed what I know: I know that I can write, I know that I will write, I know that I must write.
We write to tell the truth, our own personal truth. But why would anyone read it? Because everyone can connect is some singular way to the humanity of another person and if I write the truth that I have known, whether it’s in a story or an essay or a chapter of personal history, the truth will feel real to the reader and they may also  catch a glimpse of their own truth in the process. Lamott reminded me of all this. As a writer I cannot know if and how it might speak to someone else, but I can be confident that if I write it out faithfully from my heart it will reach the reader on some level. And that’s good enough. That’s communication.

I have had a tendency to take that fact a bit too seriously, worrying about constructing a message of cosmic importance.  In fact, it would paralyze my writing, practically sending me into a stupor. Writing is a whole lot of effort if there’s no point to it.  My fallback reason for writing is just to sort our one’s thoughts, but personal journaling, as healthy and helpful as it may be, isn’t going to compel me write in a disciplined, work-on-it-everyday kind of way. My vision needed to be rooted in something deeper than that.  Bird by Bird  reminded me that telling the truth is a gift we can give to ourselves and our readers. It’s a good gift, tracing all these little bits of truth humming around in our heads as they make their way through our fingers and onto a page.  We capture fragments of our humanity and boldly set them out in plain sight. This simple act of telling our truth in our stories and sharing the themes that run through our thoughts is part of our participation in humanity. That’s all the reason we need. I remember now.

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Posted by on July 8, 2014 in Writing


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Writing talent

I had a big thought this morning.  A big light bulb moment.  So if you have read my posts this week you are aware that I have been reading Anne Lamott, in fact I have even achieved the ability to spell her name correctly! [Excuse me while I indulge in some well deserved self derision. I have no idea how the faulty spelling wormed its way into my mind, but it did.  So the bad spelling was not only part of the blog content numerous times in the past two days, but also used as a tag, and even in the post title.  It's like I was on a crusade to get my blog noticed for its shoddiness.]  But back to the big thought.  Writers think funny.  If you are a writer you know this to be true.  One of the things I am loving about Bird by Bird is how strongly I identify with the all the odd little characteristics that she links to writers and writing.  Yes, I totally get her popularity now, she nails it.  She refers to writers possessing a self-image that teeters between the heights of grandiosity and the pits of self-loathing almost simultaneously (or at least that’s my experience). That was the beginning of my aha! moment. I had recognized it before but her description gave it legs.  When you have this push-me-pull-you game going on in your brain it’s hard to settle down and write because you keep thinking, ‘you’re taking yourself too seriously/no one will want to read this junk.’  Which is countered by feeling like this is what you are ‘born’ to do/artistic destiny, or something akin to it, so get busy and give it your best shot.  The schizophrenia can be exhausting.

The other thing that Lamott keeps saying is “just do it,” just get busy and write everyday.  She promises that the initial efforts will be awful, that getting started on any given day may be next to impossible, but the drafts will improve with each revision, and you will wind up with something that passes for a decent piece of writing.  So my very limited brain made a very obvious connection.  Maybe I have read this before, maybe I have had it told to me, but somehow it never struck me like it did today.  Writing doesn’t require talent, it requires perseverance. Yes, some people have more aptitude but unless a person is willing to write a lot, working at in on a daily basis, they aren’t writers.  Because writers write. To be a writer doesn’t require a degree, or a paycheck or a book deal.  It’s not the byproduct of attending a workshop or tossing out an occasional book review.  It’s sitting down everyday, when you have no inspiration, no direction even, it’s reworking sections that aren’t going anywhere, and there’s zero inspiration to be found, and writing anyway.  As I read Lamott talk about the gut wrenching experience of writing it sounded just awful.  Grueling even.  Depressing.  Familiar.  In fact I had been hoping that this time would be different, and I would experience less of the yuckiness of writing.  As she reminded me of the dark side of the process I asked myself, ‘Why would I or why would anyone, want to do this?  Why put myself through that?’  Then I remember the payoff.  For me the payoff comes when I reach the place where the writing starts to flow, and I’m articulating my thoughts clearly, cogently, with the right tone, the right punch; it’s good. It’s a bit of a rush, and it doesn’t often happen without a fair amount of labor to get there, but get there I do. I’ve produced something that I’m happy with. There is something to be said for taking a rough idea and hammering away on it until it becomes a respectable piece of writing.  Sometimes it turns out much better than I had any right to hope that it could and then I feel like some type of alchemy is at work.  So my big thought was this: it’s not about talent or lack of talent or identity or even having something to say (although the latter will sure help you get started).  The big thought is that being a writer is less about whether we feel like we should, could or really ought to, it’s not about any aspect or degree of our so-called talents. The big thought is that the core of being a writer is about owning it and doing the work every day. Like with so much in life, whether it’s in art, music, sports, or cooking, many people have the essential skills, but it’s the discipline that gives them ownership of their expertise. It’s pushing those skills and sticking to a project when one’s brain is muddled.  It’s working on a piece when it’s going nowhere.  It’s being stubborn and throwing our arms around the ugly parts of the creating process because we know we will never get to the good stuff without it.  That’s the big thought, no talent required, just determination.

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Posted by on June 25, 2014 in Indentity, reflection, work, Writing


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The bird is the word

This evening I downloaded Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.  I am not sure whether I’ll ever finish it given that after each paragraph I read I want to run to the computer and write something in response.  The first chapter opens with her telling her students to write about their childhoods.  Oh dear God, will that subject never go away?  I have made a mental resignation that I will someday write about my childhood. I don’t particularly want to, but it’s something that I think I need to do.  I suspect that if and when I do, it will be OK, it will be good for me to have done it.  But it feels a bit overwhelming and as projects go, it scares me.  So I read on and Lamott pulls up all these universal childhood images that she gives her class as prompts.  Enough already!  I get it!  I sigh again, I keep reading.  I sense that indeed I may hark her instruction about writing about one’s childhood.  Or not.  I’ll decide that another day.





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Posted by on June 24, 2014 in Childhood, reflection, Writing


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Artistic destiny and a nudge from Anne Lamott

I think the time has come for me to make peace with Anne Lamott.  I am pretty sure that I am the only writing Christian in the 21st century not awestruck by the woman’s writing. Throughout the 90’s I picked up her books and put them down without finishing them.  It could be that those were the days when I was reading very good writers on writing; things like Habit of Being, Mystery and Manners, One Writer’s Beginnings, Alphabet of Grace, or Dakota. I thought Lamont was, I dunno, shallow?  When friends enthusiastically tell me that I need to read her, I shrug and say that I never could get into her writing and the conversation moves on.

I spent yesterday cleaning up my most recent blog posts, changing the theme (I am going on record stating that I will not willy nilly change my theme in 2014 without good cause, however changing color schemes doesn’t count, but I’ll try to keep that to a minimum as well).  I am in the process of owning writing in my life again.  Perhaps in a bigger, truer, more certain way than I ever have been.  And that’s saying something.  But more about that later.

Around 9 last night I looked over my Facebook feed and one of my friends liked a post that one his friends had shared from Anne Lamott’s Facebook page.  She wrote on perfectionism.  It was good.  It was insightful. It was spot-on.  And it was smartly written.  And I hated-loved or loved-hated her in a way that only crazy jealous female writers can feel about talented awesome female writers who have nailed it. It’s a hot mess of inspiration, admiration and annoyance that makes you want to sit down and write until dawn.  It’s the real deal.

So today  I asked my daughter who works in a used book warehouse, to keep her eye open for Bird by Bird.  I’m pretty sure she thought it was bird watching guide until I started spurting incoherently about what had here-to-for been my opinion of Anne Lamott.  My daughter’s allowed to take home unmarketable books (this title would no doubt have to be covered in grease or missing a cover to be be deemed unmarketable, but hey, it could happen). Then I read some of Anne Lamott’s Facebook posts, looking in particular for the post she mentions where she got 500 snarky comments in response, but all I found was the hallelujah chorus.  Checked her street cred:  Kirkus Review, NYTimes, Christianity Today–nothing short of a love feast to be found anywhere.  So Bird by Bird is on my reading list.  I know what she says about perfectionism (the topic of her Facebook post) and I related to it in a way that I probably couldn’t have back in the 90s. It was weirdly apropos to where I’m at.  She puts some store in ‘fulfilling your artistic destiny’.  I groan, inside and out.  O dear Lord, does such a thing exist but in the minds of your totally self-consumed children, of whom I am chief?  And the Spirit says, don’t ask rhetorical questions, ask real ones.  I tend to sniff something of a cliché and freak out because I have struggled (like every other contemporary writer I have ever met) in my quiet thoughts with a core question: “Is this writing thing nuts?”  Normal people don’t do this.  I know, I think by the Spirit perhaps, that the real question is just simply, “Should I write?”  Don’t decorate it with superlatives or grand designs.   I believe this about destiny: destiny isn’t our future, it’s our total. It’s our past, present and future all lumped together.  So when I read the words “fulfilling your artistic destiny” I want to run–in both directions.  It’s sounds so New Agey and me-ful, and yet I want to embrace it.  So the real question for me is, “Should I write?”   I have written in the past, I am writing in the present, I will write in the future.  Because I write, it’s my destiny.  As for using ‘artistic’ as an adverb, sure, why not?  So if from here on I run in only one direction, embracing the work, won’t that be a lot easier?  I think it will.  Lamott doesn’t convince me of destiny, but reminds me of it.  And in reminding she is also confirming what I already know to be true.  And she pairs it with a clear plan of action, telling us to make lots of mistakes, expend all the effort you have and then some so that the real stuff comes out in your work.  She says what every writer knows, but needs to hear on an almost daily basis.


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New chapter

All change is stressful. I was prepared for some degree of stress and emotional upheaval, however for the most part, my entry into retirement has only been slightly troublesome. Leaving my job was different for me than it is for many.  The coworker part is atypical.  While my job was very relational, I worked with a student population in a setting  where change was a constant.  I had colleagues but not people I worked with on a daily basis, year after year.  I was the constant fixture in a fluctuating environment.

So on my last trip up to the office it was my routine tasks such as logging on to my computer, seeing my computer desktop and wallpaper, just sitting in my chair at my desk that gave me a heavy- hearted feeling.  The degree of ownership I felt to my  office space and its accoutrements was about to evaporate.  I knew that when I walked through the door to leave it would be the last time I would be in that office.  Leaving a job has that feeling, a finality that comes out of nowhere, no matter how mentally prepared you are for it.

But it’s only a job.  Really, it is only a job.  I am healthy, my family is healthy.  I’m not moving, at least not any time soon.  I just won’t be going to the office from this time forth.  This is not a bad thing, in any way, shape, or form.

So I am in the first week of being truly campus-free.  I teeter between celebrating and just kicking back to getting antsy and feeling guilty that i didn’t jump into some type of rhythm in my first 72 hours of freedom.  I lean towards the latter.  Part of that is due to my past summer pattern which required both a general plan and a week by week task list.  I would have 11 weeks off, 2 of those might be spent traveling, during the remainder I  had to figure out what items got top priority and get busy with them.  I now can let go of that sense of urgency which seems a bit weird.  I can proceed at a relaxed pace, the question is– do I want to?  I think that I do need some kind of structure and certainly some balance.

I’m realistic enough to know that it will take some time to get used to my new freedom which feels liberating, challenging, and  (largely) stress free.  Because I’m so used to the old pattern of following a game plan for the summer, the biggest shift is just playing it a bit looser and with less worry.   I’ve been looking forward to having more time to work on my writing, and now I have it.  I’ve had to work through some writing anxiety issues but I feel like it’s coming along.

It’s a new season and rather than feeling old, I actually feel younger.  The world looks fresher than it has in ages.  I feel in control of identity, my goals, my relationships in ways that I haven’t in years.  Not sure, what they will look like a year from now, but I’m so happy to have the chance to find out.

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Posted by on June 11, 2014 in reflection, retirement, work, Writing


Sitting on the edge

Sitting. A verb of action, as a fourth grade language arts lesson would instruct us, although inaction is more on target. Its lameness as an action verb clocks in right between squatting and lying.  Sitting implies consciousness, unlike lying, and unless otherwise indicated, inactivity.  It conjures, for me at least, an image of intentional passivity.Again, unless otherwise indicated.

This blog has been a snapshot of someone sitting on the edge. It’s an uncomfortable spot to sit. It’s nothing like the dock of the bay, where the water laps around your ankles. No, sitting in dormancy makes one grow weary and aware that they can’t embrace this inactivity indefinitely. And a person definitely doesn’t do well to sit on the edge of anything too long. You become anxious and keenly aware of your precarious situation.

The last entry marked that awareness, and stated that things were going to change. I can no longer sit on the edge and nor will be follow the path of least resistance if it equaled the least fulfillment.  With the last entry I was making a statement. The Alice Manifesto of 2014 may be a aggrandizement  for the sake of effect, but it is a statement.  If nothing else it is going on record that I have identified a task, or a set of tasks, which will prove a personal manifesto.  The days of sitting on the edge have passed.

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Posted by on March 17, 2014 in reflection


The prelude to the Alice Manifesto of 2014

Recently I did a survey of my journal entries for the past few years.  A year ago I would have said that I don’t know myself very well.  Well, if that were true it could only be due to shutting myself down so thoroughly that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face.  The journals show that I do know myself very well.  My ruminations turn repeatedly to the following themes: time management, time anxiety, insecurity as a writer, is writing a waste of time, discipline; that’s pretty much it.  Yes, there are topics about parenting, relationships, marriage, spirituality,  and the Christian life.  But more than anything else it comes down to anxiety about time management and writing.  How do I find peace with this?  I find myself preoccupied with what I SHOULD be doing to such an extent that it paralyzes me from doing anything.  Once your kids are grown, what do you do with yourself?  Be a good Christian, follow Christ? Sure, but we all need a bit more personalized direction.  Where do we find it?  In our marriage? our church? our friends? our work?  our past times?  Yes to all these.  But there is somewhere in the soul of each of us a place where we feel engaged in a special way.  Where we can alternately lose ourselves in the best kind of way, most self forgetting way (where even the act of thinking or writing about yourself can be self forgetting because it isn’t really about you as it is the concept of function of the heart, head, and spirit.) We become engrossed in a book, a project, repairing a car, playing a sport, doing photography, cooking.  It’s the place where we are really very present, and just want to keep doing, thinking, creating, fixing whatever it is we’re engaged in.

Especially since I have been working full-time the past 8 years, I have largely forgotten what that feels like.  I want to say that travel gives me that rush, but it doesn’t, even though I love traveling.  What I have really had a difficult time with is maintaining any consistent engagement in the areas that most satisfying/exhilarating to me: writing and reading.  I wrestle with guilt and a compulsion to justify these activities on a grand scale.  At times I have attempted to make it “God thing”, an “art thing”, a “self fulfillment” thing, I feel it has to be a thing of some type.  I suppose partly because the amount of energy I want to put in it seems excessive, when compared to what I see others do in these areas.  So consequently I normally read less than many people. Tom always reads more novels a year than I do! No contest! And–with no guilt.  So uncomfortable am I with allowing myself to W/R that I waste huge amounts of energy fussing about it, verified in the repeated journal entries that are in essence should I / could I ? Where I could spent an hour and half curled up on the couch reading something!

So there’s that.  Then there’s another layer.  Once I have given myself permission to write it’s not enough.  Writing alone, I know, should be enough, keeping a journal, jotting a poem, but I want it be constructing something larger or with an over arching purpose as I write.   I don’t mind writing blah, blah, blah (little ditties that are pretty empty of content), at least for a little while.  Eventually I will say enough of this, and go do laundry, vacuum the house, and go to Krogers.  And if I am disgusted enough with the emptiness quotient I may stay away from my journals for a good long while.

However, I am a smart enough writer to know three things: first, writers have to write regularly whether or not they have anything to say.  Even if you go session after session writing about your lunch the day before you’re doing exactly the right thing (well mixing up the topic would be a start) Don’t be afraid to say “the right thing is the write thing”  (Also— Write lots of cheesy things because you never know when you might accidentally say something decent).  You have to show up.  You have to keep the engine oiled.  The writing faculties of your brain are like muscles in your body, frequent writing keeps one agile. So developing a writing discipline, at best a schedule, at least an ethic, is primary.

The second thing I know about my own writing which is seldom poetry and almost never fiction is a need to feed.  I cannot write for very long without some source of inspiration.  While a person can and does draw mostly from their own life and experiences, I know for a fact that reading good books stimulates and inspires my writing quicker and better than anything else.  Certainly writing is always a mix of life experience and the externally sourced, and that for certain topics we draw more from one well than the other.  Personally I feel like a dry cistern when it’s all personal output and no external input, regardless what I am writing about.  This brings me to my next quandary, keeping myself in books.  In spite of my love for books I am a lazy reader and a tired old secretary whose eyes and attention span feel pretty spent by 8:30 at night.  It is what it is.  And yeah, I can fall asleep faster than anyone else I know, with the exception of one of my friends who’s been diagnosed with narcolepsy.  But the fact is, she and I go to the same book study where we go around the room and read aloud.  One of us has to be actively reading in order to stay awake, and it isn’t her.  So if I want to read in the evening I need to start ASAP after supper or it won’t happen.

The last thing I know is that writers need to have interaction with some audience eventually.  Writing needs to be shared, I mean it is a form of communication.   I have been a bit of fan of the idea that I will be read posthumously, like by my daughters on rainy July afternoons when they’re retired, and skip the publishing, sharing, critiquing, revising, fun of writing.  I routinely show Tom what I write or occasionally put in a blog and let my daughters see it, now while I’m still around to hear their reactions.  It seldom goes any farther than that.  Few people I know presently are even aware that I write at all, and I don’t see much point in telling them. I have a blog or two that I put things up on and let WordPress list it in the current post feed.  A few folks may take a look, and make a comment.  But I “know” in a more theoretical than practical sense that having some sort of writing community is considered important by people who know something about developing the writing craft.   Finding a local community right now in winter of 2014 would take more time and energy than I have; online it could happen but I would have to be more in the groove with my writing than I am at this moment to take that step. For the moment that part is on the back burner.

So the big three as I perceive them are: a writing practice ethic; inspiration from reading; interacting with others about my writing.  I have a ways to go in fitting them together and fleshing them out, but I understand them well enough.  The hindrances are guilt and lack of time. Lack of time is always at play in life, and you work it out as best you can.  But guilt is not a necessary struggle but an elective and one, I am happy to say, that is on the way out.

This fall I started to see the sunset.  My own personal sun is going lower on the horizon.  There is a limited amount of light left.  Do I want to spend that light vacuuming, I ask myself?  Not if no one’s coming over, I answer.  I want to spend it with Tom and my family. I want to spend it playing with my grandchildren, visiting my friends, participating in my church community, engaging my job with integrity and good will. I want to learn and love humanity and nature more completely.  I want to spend it watching good movies and reading good books, listening to music, having wonderful meals.  I want to be on Lake Erie, in Missoula, in the mountains, in the forests, Alaska, Hawaii, Europe, fresh air, pine trees, flowers, gardens, hiking,  beach walks.  I want to live in this present life, embracing the situations that God has placed me in, knowing His presence in a moment by moment way, carrying his presence into each encounter with people, and thanking him for the beauty of nature. And I know I don’t have all day.  None of us, except the very young can hold any hope of that.  When you are looking at that kind of sunset what place is there for guilt?  The only guilt to be found is passing up an opportunity to connect with other image bearers of God.  The only regret is to be so bogged down with tasks that we can’t hear the soft voice of the Holy Spirit in the room, or we miss the beauty of friend’s hello.

When we have jobs that claim 40-50 of our hours each week, there is not much spare time.  The evenings are short and weekends are compressed.  There are some items that have to be done, but there needs to be time to be creative, inspired and inspiring.  For me this means time to play with ideas and projects, read books, keep journals, make lists, grow ideas.  Unless there is a conflict with either taking care of some essential tasks or spending time with others, I should have no reason for guilt and no anxiety about use of my time.  How I manage time may not always be black and white, but it can be much more relaxed than I have perceived it in the past.  So I want to be done with those types of journal entries.  Sometimes anxieties are nothing more than bad habits we fall into and I am ready to shed this one.


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