Relearning Stillness

For two months I have been on the move within a twelve mile radius. I was forced to leave my beloved studio (dubbed the treehouse) where I have worked and taught my classes for ten years. There was a lot of stress in finding a place as charming and serviceable as the treehouse has been, and a lot of cleaning out and clearing out and purging and moving to do. And now it is done. Now I can stay still. Or can I?

I find that after any intense period of being on the go, I have trouble being still again. I am restless. I wake up in the middle of the night sure that I’ve forgotten some crucial detail. I have trouble concentrating enough to read a book. I can’t think of how to cook anymore, because I lack the psychic space it takes to organize ingredients. I determine to sit on the couch and do nothing, but it feels as though a bolt of lightning will strike me for such a sin. In short, I have to relearn stillness.

I have to remind myself that I am coming down off something, down off stress, down off movement, down off intensity, and it is like coming off a drug. In America the drug of busyness is a part of our culture. We’re encouraged to be busy. We’re rewarded for it. So, I must relearn stillness while living in a soup of cultural busyness.

The first step I take is awareness. I admit out loud that I have had a ton of stuff to do, and that while I got it done, I also lost my way a bit in the throes of doing. I have been on a long journey. Like Frodo in The Hobbit, things don’t quite feel the same when the journey ends, even though it ends in my kitchen.

The second step is taking a day without placing any sort of demands on myself. I do not try to get anything done in this day. I might dabble in something, but I have no goals. I might read, but the goal is not reading. I might so a little scribbling, but the goal is not writing. I might take a walk, but the goal is not walking. This is a day of zero goals. I let the day unfold. If something feels difficult I don’t do it.

The next day, I take deep breaths and carry on. It helps if I can find pockets of stillness in this day. It helps if I don’t have to dive back into intensity. It helps if I can remember what I was doing before life got so damn busy and try to ease back into that.

Writing a book? Oh, yes. What scene was I on? Who are the characters again? What was the work saying to me when I had to stop listening and attend to moving?

It’s scary to step back into the fictional world. I’m afraid my characters won’t talk with me. I’m afraid the thread has been dropped and lost. I’ve not been a fiction writer for nearly two months now, not one that was writing anyway. Do I still know how?

This fear is real. Reentry is hard. If you’ve dropped your writing for whatever reason, then know that you sit where I sit now. Somehow I have to reenter. And so do you if you want to bring the project to fruition. So take my hand. Let’s wade in together. I’ll work on mine and you work on yours and we’ll know each other is there.

Posted in comfort, Day by day, emotion, Energy, fiction, Listening, Maintenance, Process, procrastination, silence, Starting Again, Stillness, The Writer's Life, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Soothing the Reader

There is something important to remember and that is that the reader wants you to succeed. The reader of a novel wants nothing more than to forget she is reading. She wants to fall into your fictional world so deeply that it exists as real and fully formed at the world she actually lives in. She wants to experience your character’s emotions. She wants to be transported into story. She wants to close the book when it is over and be haunted by what she has just read. And let’s face it, you want this too.

You may have read that you should never give your reader an opportunity to stop reading, and this advice might be confusing to you. Of course your reader will stop reading. She, like everyone, has a life to attend to. You cannot control that. You cannot pick up her children from school or attend a business meeting for her. Your reader will stop reading, but this is not the same as wanting to stop reading. Nor is it the same as stopping reading because some information has been left out of the narrative and the reader has to stop, even briefly and unconsciously, to supply that missing bit. Put simply your job is to soothe the reader, to massage her mind into receptivity, and you do this by never missing a beat.

Writing is detail work. Writing is organization.

If it rains in your book, then things must be wet. There cannot be pockets of wetness and pockets of dryness, unless there is something allowing the dryness, such as shelter, or a canopy of trees. If the character dishes soup out, there must be a receptacle for that soup – a bowl or a cup. If someone’s eyes are blue on page ten, then they must also be blue on page fifty.

This sounds tedious, and nitpicking, as though I am splitting hairs. I am not splitting hairs. I am telling you that these things matter. Readers are savvy. Of course they can, in their mind, supply a bowl for that soup, but why ask them to do that? Why leave out anything that causes the reader to stop and say to herself, “There must be a bowl.” If you leave enough tiny details out like this, you create a choppy ride for the reader. You create less chance for her to fall into your fictional world, the world she wants to fall into. It’s your job to soothe the reader into a trance.

Posted in Advice, comfort, Completing a novel, creativity, critique, Decisions, Drafts, emotion, failure, fiction, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Alchemy

Years ago, when I first started teaching, a woman signed up for my class at the John C. Campbell Folk School in the N.C. mountains because her doctor had told her that if she didn’t do something for herself soon, she’d die. She wasn’t looking for a writing class. She didn’t think of writing at all. She was just looking to do something for herself, doctor’s orders, and she ended up in my group.

In this class we just wrote, and read back to each other, and received each others’ writing by recalling what we liked. As the week went on, we formed a community, and we became important to each other, and we all found out more about this woman. Her alcoholic husband. Her demanding adult children. The dishes in the sink and the laundry on the floor. A smack across the face. She wrote the scenes of her life that week. Through writing from prompts these scenes spooled from her pen and stitched themselves into her story. It may have been the first time she ever told her story, even to herself. Stories are often pattern, and now she could look at the pattern of her own life without the distractions of daily dust-ups of drama her situation kept her in.

She went home after that week and left her husband. She rented a small apartment and lived alone. She wrote me a few times about how peaceful it was. She thanked me. What had I done? Had I broken up a marriage? No, of course not. I’d only held space for a person to hear her own thoughts.

In the burning times, this might be considered the work of a witch. Powerful women, smart women, women with property, women who healed others with herbs and deep knowledge, women who were not married, women who lived outside the “norm” were called witch. But the accusation of witch wasn’t just assumed to be correct. Women were tested for being a witch by various means. Some women were put in a chair and dunked in water. If she was a witch, she wouldn’t drown. Or a woman was needled, her skin pricked and pricked and pricked, because somewhere on a witch was a place she would not bleed. And if she bled, which she did, she was not a witch.

Funny how the tests for a witch always leave a woman dead. Funny too, how this woman was told she was at death’s door if she didn’t do something for herself. Was that doctor a witch too?

The burning times, that I did not live through, and that seem horrific and unrepeatable, are very much on my mind these days, as is the alchemy of writing. I’ve witnessed that alchemy again and again, women and men coming back to themselves, hearing themselves, hearing each other, becoming stronger. I’ve seen the tough and guarded made vulnerable. I’ve seen the meek and voiceless start to speak up for themselves. I’ve seen barriers break down and humanity show through.

And if this is the work of witch then I accept it. Even in these burning times.

Posted in creativity, depression, emotion, Energy, Magic, Process, Prompts, Self-worth, soul, spirit, Story, survival, Telling our stories, Transformation, Uncategorized, Visibilty, voice, women | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Walls, Doors and Windows

I am thinking about walls, doors and windows, and the rooms that many writers feel they are kept out of. The feeling is real. I have a lot of experience with walls, doors and windows. Besides the fact that I spent a good deal of my writing and publishing life cleaning these things, as well as toilets and bathtubs and carpets and kitchens, I have also felt closed out of the ruckus that is writing.

The ruckus I am talking about is the world of visibility. It can seem like there are writers who are very visible who are ignoring the writers who are not. It can feel like a club you’re not let into. It can feel like standing outside a house and looking at a grand party going on inside while knocking on the doors, the walls, the windows and never gaining entry.

I have experienced some real bullshit in the writing world. It’s there. I used to complain and whine a great deal about it. I was sure that I was deliberately being kept out of the greatest party on earth. The truth is, this feeling of being left out came from my own feelings of inadequacy.

Here are some of the myths I had to dismantle:

Myth Number One: The greatest party on earth. Like every party, there are some wonderful people here and some real assholes, and it’s not always easy to tell the difference. But you can believe this: everyone in the house worked their asses off to get here. And if you’re working your ass off too, and feel like you’re not being invited in, let me suggest that the greatest party on earth is really just a lot of sub-parties. Chances are you’re already in and don’t know it.

Myth Number Two: Once invited into the greatest party on earth, you’re always in. This is simply not true. You never know when this magic thing called writing is going to kiss you goodbye. A hot shot writer today might never publish another book. Or the next book might be a terrible flop. Or the whole desire and drive to write might just leave you, and you decide you’d rather be a serial killer than write another word. And then you’d only be invited in as someone’s character (we hope). Again – writing is hard work.

Myth Number Three: Once I am a celebrity life will be easy and I will be respected. Not true. Re. the respect, you’ll never be respected if you don’t respect yourself, and that relates to not worrying about being kept out of the party and just doing your work, which is hard. Writing is hard. But, besides writing being hard work, you know what else is hard work? It’s hard work to have and maintain a public life. It takes a lot of juice to remain visible, to give to the public the best you can think of to give, and to receive from the public both love and criticism. It’s very difficult to do this, and retain the spaciousness and silence to research and write deeply on the next work. All this stuff takes time, but also soul and energy. Sometimes, a person with a public life just needs time and space to herself. Sometimes, a person with a public life must disengage or never write again. And sometimes a person with a public life disengages by degrees. Do not assume it’s personal.

And Then There’s This Truth- I’ve found that talking about the walls only makes the walls thicker. The more closed doors I see, the more closed doors there are. Forget about the hierarchy, which is both real and not real. The less I think about not being in the company of the giants, the more I become a giant in my own world, and the easier it is to see my place in this party called writing, and the more I understand that while we all differ in where we are in the party, we are all important. We’re all cells in an organism. Who’s to say which cell is more important? Who’s to say that someone isn’t struggling, just because we have different struggles? Who’s to say that some struggles are better than others?

Just relax. Writing is hard enough without worrying about whether one belongs or does not belong to a particular club. And believe me every writer has felt invisible at some point. If he or she hasn’t felt invisible, I doubt he or she would be writing.

Posted in Advice, class, Community; Genorosity, Comparison, Competition, creativity, economics, Elitism, emotion, Energy, failure, Gratitude, happiness, Magic, Maintenance, privacy, Process, Public appearances, research, Self-worth, silence, soul, spaciousness, spirit, success, survival, The Writer's Life, Uncategorized, Visibilty, work, Writing career | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Art of Listening

If you are a writer, you must listen. You must listen to your instincts. You must listen to the world. You must listen to the things that lack conventional voice. You must listen to the trees, the river, the deer, the rocks, the fungus, the rust, the sunrise and the moon. You must listen to your characters, to the sound of vowels, to the rhythm of language as well as its meaning. You must disengage, every day, from the noise and commerce and traffic and politics of the world. You must not let anyone tell you how to do it. You must not let anyone tell you what’s important. You must not let anyone tell you that you must do A, B, or C.

What fed your soul as a child?

Find it.

What did you do before the serpent of social media?

Find it.

Where were your secret places before you became an adult?

Find them.

What calmed your heart?

Find it.

What quieted your mind?

Find it.

What circumvented the chatter?

Find it.

What is the last thing you picked up off the ground and put into your pocket?

Posted in Advice, comfort, Consumerism, creativity, Day by day, education, Elitism, emotion, Energy, Exploration, fun with what we do, intuition, Magic, Philosophy, Play, privacy, silence, spaciousness, spirit, Uncategorized, Wildness | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Free Advice

When you’re a writer, you receive a lot of free advice. A good deal of it (most, I’d say) comes from people who do not write. I’ve been told I have to learn Latin (which I have nothing against, but don’t consider a requirement), read Proust (again, nothing against Proust, but it’s not a requirement), don’t quit my day job, do quit my day job, read Bridget Jones’s Diary because I might learn something (dispensed from a man in the grocery store to whom I used to sell bread – and for the record, nothing against BJD but …), write a mystery, write a fantasy, write YA, write an Oprah book (I’m working on it, believe me), write a best seller (ditto), write short stories for Playboy, Esquire, and The New Yorker (I haven’t even tried).

I could go on with this. A plethora of free advice was dispensed to me from complete strangers early in my career, a great deal of it before my first novel was published and a great deal of it before my second novel was published, in that sort of twilight space in which I’d proven I could write, but had not yet proven I could write again.

The free advice used to infuriate me. So much of it felt incredibly distant from the life I lived, and even from the life I was trying to build. Well, I’ve built that life now, and it’s far better and richer than the one I imagined, and the free advice has fallen off. It seems I might have some of my own ideas on how to go about being a writer.

So, here is my free advice to writers, for what it’s worth. Like all free advice, it’s suspect.

Write. Write all the time, even when it is not a project for publication. Write badly. Write just because. Don’t listen to advice from strangers. They are all strangers. Know yourself. Know your work. Know your characters. Listen only to the invisible people in the room. Don’t try to sound smart. Prove nothing to nobody. Make some friends – real friends who are willing to listen to your fears, (although you will not be calling it fear at the time) without judgement. Have friends who can hold up a mirror to show you just how fierce you really are. Grow fangs and claws and wear your heart on your sleeve. Dumb down so that everything is new. Be an expert in nothing. Always begin. Appreciate tree frogs, and rescue them when they get caught between the shutters and the wall. Take walks in the dark. Give money away. Let your stories breathe without publication. Let them breathe with publication. Love senselessly and enthusiastically. Write down everything that crazy fucker at the laundromat said to you. Describe hands. Watch bracelets jangle down wrists as wine glasses are hoisted. Look into people’s eyes. Don’t look into people’s eyes. Visit with snails. Visit the dead. Stand with one hand on the tombstone of the infant daughter and the other on the tombstone of her parents and feel the current. Turn off the TV. Don’t listen to the news. Pay your bills. Live cheap. Work a job that has nothing to do with art. Drive a car with a lot of bumper stickers on it that contradict each other. Have an identity crisis. Quit and start again.

Posted in Advice, Community; Genorosity, creativity, Day by day, Decisions, Elitism, Energy, fiction, happiness, Magic, Play, Process, spirit, success, survival, The Writer's Life, Uncategorized, Wildness | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Letter to Self

Dear Nancy,

What can I tell you that, deep inside, you already know? The world is a rough place. Find the beauty. It is what will save you. The fear you feel at the publication of a new book is totally normal. The shutting down you’re feeling probably has to to do with the same sort of out-of-control feeling you had as a child, that feeling that your space is not your own.

Above all, you value your own space. You don’t stuff a bunch of junk between your ears and you never have. The fact is you’re probably a little traumatized right now because of He Who Shall Not Be Named. Whenever you’ve encountered a man like that you found a way to leave. But he’s everywhere. And his minions are everywhere too. And they’re angry. They’re angry at you for being a woman. They’re angry at our president for being black, and a Democrat. They’re angry at people of color. They think they’ve been screwed, and maybe some of them have, but not by the people they’re angry at. But they need someone to blame, and He Who Shall Not Be Named loves to whip them into a frenzy and they feel empowered by their hate. Honestly, this is a movie you’d walk out on, gladly losing your $8.00 and throwing your bag of chemical popcorn in the trash just to leave. But this movie keeps on running, and running, and running.

So there’s that, and even if you could ignore it all, the energy would still be there. This dark cloud that’s been spewed into the atmosphere.

But you must take care of yourself, dear. You must do it in all the ways you have done it before. Find that beauty. Go outside. Get alone with yourself. Write in your journal. Read a good book. Listen to the waters, and the sky, and the birds, and the trees.  Believe in something larger than this madness. And so often the large thing you must believe in is in the small things. Listen to the snail if he will talk to you, and he will if you will listen.

Don’t cry, sweetie. It will be all right. The world is both fragile and tough. The dragon beasts are being slayed, but they have to breathe out their vitriolic fire before they go down. Think of it as a death rattle. Turn it into patterns in your mind. The rise and fall of a shit storm. Wish those people love and light, even though they wish nothing of the sort for you or your friends or your community. Rise above.

Give thanks – my home, my husband, my friends, having food, writing, my work, my community, the river. There are those who do not have all that you have. Pray for them.

Be kind – I can do that. Be thankful that you can for there are those who cannot be kind as often as you are. They’ve misplaced that skill, or it’s been taken from them in some sort of way. Pray for them too.

Do your work – Doing it. Pray for yourself as well.

Love, Your Better Self

aka Nancy

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Low Tide

I have spent most of my life not paying attention to the world at large. This worked for me. Whatever happened, if it was bad enough, or important enough, I’d find out about it. Whatever knowledge I needed for my writing came to me. It was, I see now, a life of faith, a life in which my mind was kept clear so that I could focus on a story.

Besides writing and reading, there were a few other things I loved. I loved cooking and nesting. The domestic arts, and life at home were always a big comfort to me. I actually loved cleaning my house, but then I started cleaning other people’s houses for a living, and the desire to get out the vacuum cleaner on a weekend, or to kneel on the bathroom floor to wash the ring out of the tub left me. Even though I still loved to have a clean house, even though I still recognized that a clean house delivered a level of calmness to me, I could no longer make myself perform the tasks that would result in that.

So it is sometimes with writing. Too many words in my life, be they my own, or from the million voices on the computer, can result in an inability to bring forth the desire to write. The juice is gone. I feel dried up and exhausted. The only thing I want is TV, preferably a sitcom that I am familiar with, that demands nothing of me.

But these days a published author does not have the luxury I had in the early days, the luxury of completely turning the world off, the luxury of living reclusively and in faith. Yet that is what’s required to keep on writing, to keep on being creative, to bring forth the tides of imagination.

Tides is perhaps the right word here. There are, in a creative life, high tides and low tides. Low tides are natural. Low tides are rhythmic. Low tides are the time to go swimming. I am learning, finally, that when I feel like quitting writing it is a sure sign that I need to quit something, that I need to back off from the noise of the world, that I need to find a way to submerge in the salty waters and quiet the world.

This is not easily done. The publishing world, the commercial world assures us that if we back away for even a nanosecond we will be forgotten. In truth it doesn’t matter. If I can be forgotten that quickly, that easily, then I will be forgotten. But if I can keep on making art, I will at least be making art, doing the thing that I want to be known for in the first place. Because, let’s face it, I don’t want to be known for my brilliant tweets. I don’t want to be known for my Facebook posts. I don’t want to be known for this blog. I want to be known for my writing, and as a person who helped other people with their writing. And the only way I can be known for those things is to make friends with their source and learn to dance in both high tide and low tide.

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Is Confidence Necessary?

I am at an age where I look back on my younger self with great tenderness. I wonder what happened so early in my childhood that my confidence was completely wiped out. There are of course institutions and people to blame: parents, adults, church, school, advertising, TV, other children, teachers – I could go on.

What happened though was no one person’s fault. It was a system, a tsunami of cultural messaging that I couldn’t untangle from, that wrapped its tendrils around my feet with every step I took, that pulled me backwards, or down, or away from my own heart. I knew my heart then, but I could not speak what was in it without ridicule, or arguments, or someone denying its truth. I became an extremely silent child, a child afraid of being wrong, a child afraid she was wrong. A child who felt stupid, and bored, and who retreated into herself more and more as time went on.

But time did go on, and the demands of childhood went on too. There were things I wanted: Attention, no attention. To shine, to not be seen. To be pretty, to fade away. To be loved, to not be noticed. For someone to be proud of me, to disappear. To be popular, to be totally alone.

I loved the woods. In the woods no one asked me to point out Taiwan on a world map, and no one asked me to recite multiplication tables, and no one asked me to give my life to Jesus. In the woods I could trust something. I could trust the woods.

I used to fantasize about living in a cave – a furnished cave with a bed, and rugs, and a cat, and books. But what would I eat? Cereal would be good, I thought. I could sneak back home and steal boxes of cereal. But I’d need milk. How would I keep the milk from spoiling? It was the lack of refrigeration, not the lack of a good cave, that tripped me up every time. So I stayed where I was.

I stayed with my family and I stayed in school and I became a teenager with the usual teenage concerns. One day a boy said to me, “You don’t talk much, do you?”

“I guess not,” I answered, taking in what I perceived as criticism. The only thing that allowed me to be there at all, in his presence, the only thing that gave me any sort of social life was that I smoked pot. I was a hippie and I smoked pot, and hippie pot smokers hung together so I’d been let into a club. But I didn’t talk much.

“It kind of pisses me off,” the boy said.

So it was criticism.

I talk now. I’m 62 years old and I’m a novelist and I have a public life. Some days I wake up a little panicked over this. I always wanted to be a writer. When I was a child I knew that books were written by writers, but I noticed that I didn’t know anything about the writers themselves. If I ever saw a picture of a writer it was on the book jacket. So becoming a writer seemed perfect for me. I could present a book, but not be seen. Well, things changed, and here I am, a writer with a public life. It’s not bad though. It’s helped me gain some confidence, but I sure didn’t start out with it.

So these days, I look back on that child, the child I was, the child with her confidence-slate wiped clean and I look at who I am now, and I see that tender skinny child with the long, gangly legs and the soft hair on my young arms, the arms that I never raised in school when a teacher asked a question, and with which I hugged myself down in the woods, and I see myself trying to please everyone by not existing, and I feel sympathy and also a smidge of pride, because I think, damn girl, you did a lot with a little.

I wonder though, if I’d had confidence, if I’d been allowed to think even one good thought about myself, what would I be? Would I be Norman Fucking Mailer, or Nancy Peacock tenfold, or twenty-fold, or infinite-fold? Or was it the lack of confidence that helped make me who I am?

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The Conversation

This is a conversation I have had quite often:

“How do I get to do what you do?” I am asked.

“What exactly do you mean?”

How do I get a book published? How do I get paid to teach writing? How do I get likes on Facebook? How? How? How?

Where do I begin? What do I say?

I started this journey way back. Way, way back when I first started writing in fourth grade. Like most people, I had a mild flirtation with it at first. And then I got serious. And then I had an on-again-off-again relationship with it for years. And during that time there were some failures and a few successes. Oh, and during all that, I cleaned a lot of houses that did not belong to me.

“How do I get to do what you do?”

You don’t. You get to do what you do. Maybe they’ll look similar. Maybe not. I never thought I’d be teaching writing. It wasn’t part of the plan. The plan was to be a writer, not a teacher. Now I’m both. And I’m glad. I can’t imagine one without the other.

My point is that everything in my life has helped me get to where I am now, and where I am now is not at all what I imagined. I imagined I’d be a best selling author by now, that I’d own a house by now, that I’d have more books written and published by now, that I’d be a name everyone recognizes, and so on. You know the dream. Chances are you’ve had it too. You might even be looking at what you see of my life and saying to yourself, “That’s where I want to be. I want what Nancy has.”

But it’s fairly useless to look at any writer or artist with a tinge of jealousy, just as it’s useless to ask, “How do I get to where you are now?” Because you can’t. Your life might acquire some similarities. You might have some books published, you might get some of the same sort of attention that I have received. You might even receive more. But similarities are not the same as path. You have your own path. We might each have spouses, and marriages, but they are different spouses and different marriages. Having them has everything to do with the path we were on, how we met our spouses and courted them. This is true for your writing life too. My path included cleaning other people’s houses. Sometimes when I am asked, “How do I get to do what you do?” I want to put a feather duster in that person’s hand.

There is no map. You can’t get a checklist of what to do to propel yourself onto another person’s path. You have your own path, and the fact is, if you’re writing, you’re on it. You’re just not where you think you ought to be. I understand. I didn’t think I was where I ought to be either when I was chasing other people’s pubic hairs down drains. The thing is I was wrong. I was exactly where I ought to have been. I wrote a book about it.

Set your feet firmly on your path, not mine.

 

 

Posted in creativity, Day by day, Decisions, Elitism, History, Maintenance, Publishing, Self-worth, The Writer's Life, Uncategorized, Writing career | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment