Your pre-writing walks along the river sound glorious, and so does your description of your childhood “moodling” time in the woods. As a child, I also walked in the woods. It was a great solace to me, and a time of fantastic creativity. I took our dog and headed into the woods along the Chena River in Fairbanks, Alaska. The trails that criss-crossed that narrow patch of woods between our subdivision and the river and the military base were still wild then, in their small way, and we would encounter moose on occasion, and we’d stop to watch beavers working industriously on trees they’d downed, sliding them down to their hut on the river. It was magical in what was really there: the black spruce and birch, the moose and beaver and ravens, but it was also magical in what was going on in my head. I’d spin endless stories for myself, often simply continuations of what I was reading at the time, an eccentric mix of whatever drew my attention at the little library I loved to wander through. I read J.R.R. Tolkien and Jack London, Herman Hesse and Anne McCaffrey, and what was in my head was a sort of internal fan fiction. Sometimes I imagined myself as a ranger in Middle Earth, and sometimes I was a dragon rider, and sometimes I was befriending Harry Haller, that old Steppenwolf, listening to his despair (imagine my surprise at 13 when I discovered there were no literal wolves in Steppenwolf, but I fell in love with the book nonetheless). It was a difficult time of my life, but what always soothed me was reading, walking, and the telling of stories, even though many of those stories never left my head. And there is no reason they should have: they were the private workings of a young, creative mind, and they did not need to be on paper to be of use to me.
I have a patch of woods too where I live now, and I often walk one of my dogs there, and that time becomes valuable again, both in the soul-soothing way of giving myself over to the present, to observation, and in an imaginative way. I still have ravens here, and crows, and a wealth of rabbits. When I walk, I am alert, for we have rattlesnakes and occasional black bears, and a pack of resident coyotes who are not good neighbors, and I have been surprised by the coyotes more than once when walking with my dogs, and we try to avoid confrontations. But even in my attempts to be alert and present, I slip into my childhood habits, and find myself telling stories in my head. These days, the stories I tell may in fact find their way to the page. Even when I am feeling stuck, the act of walking will often trigger something and I find myself finding a new way to tell a story, or a character becomes more clear to me, or an image that will become a poem gets stuck in my head like a burr and I know, when I go home, I’ll be able to write something. So the habits of childhood have not died, and I am grateful for that.
And I’m grateful for that for another reason. I have had to remind myself, in recent years, of the value of play, of writing simply because it is enjoyable to do so. As a middle-aged woman, a “mid-career” writer, I have found myself beached on the shoals of professionalism, and it is not a place conducive to creativity. I am also an academic, and am lucky to have one of the coveted jobs teaching in my field. I am not complaining about that; I recognize how privileged I am to be able to make a living teaching writing. But there are difficulties in that too, and in my case, when my working life turned particularly sour and I thought of giving up academia, I also gave up writing. Because in my mind the two were entwined: my writing life was my career and vice versa, and it was poisoned for me. While I read as voraciously as ever, I stopped writing entirely, and thought I would never come back to it. And I was not bothered by that.
Remember that old advice: only write if you can’t NOT write? I got that as a young person, as a teen and young adult. And the other version of it too: “I write because I have to write.” I heard that a lot and believed it. I thought that compulsion to write was the mark of a real writer, what separated us from the wannabes or those just toying with it. And maybe there is some truth in it for some people, though my relationship with writing has changed quite a bit over the years. It may seem like a harmless thing to say, that “true” writers write because they must, but I found this definition quite limiting. Because what about the times I wasn’t writing? Was I still a writer? Like you, I now understand of course I was, that I am a writer whether I am at the desk producing work or not. But for many years, I did equate writing with production. And later, I equated writing with publishing. I was a real writer when I was publishing, when I was striving to get a poem or essay here or there, when I had a publishing goal. And if I wasn’t? If I wasn’t writing or publishing, what was I?
When I stopped writing, I discovered two contradictory things. First, I discovered that no, I did not in fact need to write. At some point in those several years, I let go of some degree of ambition, and for me, that was profound. I realized that if I never published another book, I’d still be proud of the work I’ve done.
I said there were two things I learned, and the other thing was, yes I DO need to write! Because I was not writing poems. I was not writing essays. But I still wrote down dreams. Notes that might be a story someday. Notes that might be an essay. I picked up my long neglected journals again, and began that. And so I was writing, and as I began these “not projects,” these “not books,” I started to remember what I had enjoyed about writing in the first place.
Because it took me back to my childhood, when I felt no self-consciousness about what I wrote, when I did it simply because I loved it. When I didn’t try to think “should I tell this story this way,” or “no this has been done.” I did it then just for love and pleasure. And so, in my adult days of not writing, I thought, well, would it hurt to try something else? Something fun? And I decided to try out NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I’d been a “professional” writer for a long time, and a teacher of writing, and I had a bit of disdain for the idea of writing a novel in a month, but suddenly it sounded fun. There was no risk: no one every needed to see what I wrote. I put aside my judgment, put aside what I thought I knew and decided to just give it a try.
And it was fun! I let myself go back to the days before professionalism. I chose to write genre fiction, and that first year wrote a messy fantasy novel that may well never go beyond my laptop, but the thing is, it was like playing. It was like those long stories I narrated in my head as I walked a child, and I just put the words down, one after other, 1700 words a day. There was no order: I wrote scenes in whatever order they appeared in my head. I ignored contradictions and plot holes, and told myself I’d fix all that later. I forced myself not to line edit. Just get it out. And I did. And I had fun.
Since then, I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo three more times, and last fall, I actually completed a draft of one of the “it may be a novel someday” projects that I was working on. They all need much work, and who knows if any of them will ever become a real novel, but that wasn’t the point. The point was fun. And I realized that had long been missing from my writing life: the sense of play.
And something magical happened. I learned to separate writing from publishing, from professionalism. I got back to what I had enjoyed in the first place. And since then, I slipped tentatively back into the sea of writing. I wrote an essay, some poems. I wrote a fantasy novella that actually did get accepted for publication (my first publication in that field). I got the magic back.
Professionalism and publishing is a critical part of our work as writers, the work of submitting for publication, finding publishers and perhaps agents, and all of that. Platform building even (as much as those words make me shudder, and as much as I have resisted doing it). But at least for me, too much focus on that aspect of the work has literally shut down my writing. It made me forget what I had known in the past: that sometimes the most important part is the writing itself, getting the words on the page. As I tell my students, we can worry about what to do with them later.
So these days, I walk in the woods, or in our little neighborhood, with one or another of my dogs. I’m “moodling,” and I often slip into writing in my head. Some thinking is for a book of poems that may, finally, be finished after years of neglect. Some is on serious subjects and doesn’t feel playful: I’m thinking, in the aftermath of Ferguson and Baltimore, about first hearing the word “riots” when my mother took me outside and pointed north of where we lived in California and told me Watts was burning, and I’m thinking of what it means to have lived my life with that word and not enough justice for people of color, of how I’ve experienced some of that lack of justice myself, and of how I’ve also been extraordinarily lucky. I’m a middle aged woman of color who has been blessed with a good job and a home in a place I love, and my home is not burning, and I have the privilege of spending time like this, walking and thinking and writing, and even when I am outraged and wanting justice, my own life and home is not in danger. And through all this, this precious gift of time and thought, I see this writing life has been an amazing gift. Even though my “break up” and reconciliation with writing came out of an extraordinarily difficult time in my life, I’m grateful for the lesson, because now I can go back to the writing renewed, with a new sense of perspective. And a sense of play. And through it all, writing or not writing, publishing or not, I have been a writer and reader, nourished by words.
Thank you for letting me join in this conversation with you,