Follow your bliss and get your hands dirty

I dreamed recently that I was giving career advice to young people, but they weren’t listening to me because I hadn’t had a successful career.

I couldn’t blame them because, although I don’t feel like a professional failure, it has been hard for me to describe my so-called career.

I really tried for a while, beginning in about 2004, when I began going to writing retreats, to think of myself as a writer. Continue reading

What I don’t write about

I haven’t posted for a while and I don’t really know why. Sometimes I think it’s because my life is very miscellaneous right now, too many different things going on, no one thing predominant.

Accompanying a close friend in a serious health crisis.

Preparing for another trip to Congo.

Helping plan and lead Lenten worship services. Continue reading

First Monday

IMG_3032Fresh coat of snow, clean slate, new start. Where shall we start? So many things to take up, resume, complete, and carry on that I am hit by the former Monday morning panic before I even get out of bed. I say former because I am retired and Mondays shouldn’t do that to me any more. But this is the first Monday of a new year and I am coming out of an even-less-productive-than-usual couple of weeks. I think my left brain is getting antsy. Continue reading

My father’s daughter

IMG_0304In a few days I will pick up the Thanksgiving turkey and pies at the South Bend Farmers Market. I have a personal connection with that market. My father sold his family’s poultry there when he was a teenager, helping support his family during the Depression.

It’s one of those circles that close when you move back to home territory after a lifetime of living elsewhere. I like that connection but other echoes of my father’s life in my own sometimes trouble me. Continue reading

C in writing

Today I began a new book because I finished another book that  made me want to read this one. I  finished Pat Schneider’s How the Light Gets In and now I wanted to read her book about how she teaches writing. The book is Writing Alone and with Others.

I want to read this book because in the other book, her most recent one, she mentions Malawi. She says several times that her writing workshops have been given in many places and to many kinds of people and have been successful, even in Malawi villages. I think of Congo. I wonder if I could teach writing in Congo. To women who can barely read. I am just curious enough about this to buy the book and begin reading immediately, believing I must explore this before I go to Congo again. This happens to me often. Books present themselves to be read, interrupting what you are doing, interrupting your plans, because, it turns out, they will change whatever it was you were doing, the thing that was interrupted. Continue reading

Book v blogging

In case you miss this blog when I don’t write, which I doubt, I thought I should explain why my entries have been few and far between recently. It is because I am working on a book and it sucks up all my writing energy. In fact, it sucks up most of my energy, period, in something like two to five hours a day, and leaves me with long, low-energy stretches of time in which I am good for nothing except reading, watching TV and movies, and making endless, hamster-like rounds on the walking track at the Y.

The book is going well but I don’t want to talk about it yet. Which gives me little to do but list the books I have read recently to fill the dull-headed hours left after squeezing out a thousand words or two. Here is the list of recent reads on my Kindle, beginning with the latest. After a morning of writing I have enough energy only for one-line reviews.

All Our Names, Dinaw Mengestu. In the middle of this now. Intriguing but I wish I liked the characters more.

The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison. This is making the rounds and I read it with high hopes. Unfortunately I could not summon much empathy with the author.

From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson. This blew me away because it is an academic-ish exposition of the main themes of the memoir I am working on.

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, Michael Lewis. I have a horrified fascination with Wall Street machinations and if anyone can make sense of them, Lewis can.

Living with a Wild God, Barbara Ehrenreich. Amazing. I loved seeing this other side of social-activist-writer Ehrenreich.

The Husband’s Secret, Liana Moriarty. Pretty good chick lit.

Foreign Gods, Inc., Okey Ndibe. Started this novel about a Nigerian immigrant but lost patience with it.

Dust, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. Ditto. What’s happening? I usually love books by African novelists but these two left me cold.

Leaving Church, Barbara Brown Taylor. I love honest spiritual memoirs, whether by atheists (Ehrenreich) or ex-Anglican priests (Taylor).

Ghana Must Go, Taiye Selasi. I loved this African émigré novel, a portrayal of what can happen when brilliant people get lost in another culture.

The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton. An absorbing, prizewinning, long novel set in 19th century New Zealand that entertained me but didn’t quite live up to the hype.

Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo, Anjan Sundaram. This guy went to Congo on his own, on an urge, without a job, and lived with/off of Congolese acquaintances. Nitty-gritty real.

I won’t begin to list the movies I’ve watched except to say that the BBC series Doc Martin has 33 episodes and is super-great escapism. Although I am getting royally fed up with the main character, the others (receptionist Pauline, the pharmacist who has a crush on the doc, the Larges, father and son) are a riot.

A book for struggling writers

This-Is-the-Story-of-a-Happy-Marriage-3dWriter friends, here is a book you must read although you wouldn’t know by the title: Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. I read anything Patchett writes (Bel Canto, State of Wonder) but I was especially attracted by the title. I, too, have a happy marriage and I’m tired of reading about dysfunctional ones.

It turns out to be a collection of her essays, including the eponymous one. But most of what I have read so far has had to do with writing. That’s why I can’t wait to tell you about this book even though I am only 19 percent into it, according to my Kindle. I haven’t even come to the essay that made me buy it

Reading the introduction and the first essays, especially “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life,” has been extremely timely for me as I struggle my way into writing what I think may be a book. I am highlighting whole paragraphs, like this one:

Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. Every time I have set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let’s face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time. Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.

On the one hand I wish I had come across a book like this when I was younger. Maybe I would have started earlier and become a real writer. I wish I had happened upon the right mentors at the right time, like Patchett did. I wish I had known, and that everybody around me had known, when I was a kid, that I wanted to be a writer. As she says, this was perhaps her greatest gift. But being a writer was not in the realm of possibility for me, a little Mennonite girl growing up on a farm in the 1950s. My goodness.

So here I am, at 69, struggling to write anyhow. The thing is, the struggle I go through is the same as what Patchett describes. The self-doubt, the feeling of inadequacy, the distance between the conception and the writing, the effort always to do something beyond your capability, the profound dissatisfaction with the final product (you’ve killed it, she says, with your own hand) are not peculiar to me. I should know this by now, I’ve read enough writers about writing. But her essay catches me in the act of going through this inevitable charade as I start to work on what I hope will be my second book. I can’t. I hate it. And yet I must. I love it.

I am not capable of writing at Patchett’s level, for sure, or at the level of most of the writers whose books I feast on every evening. I profoundly admire and envy them. But I write what I can and what I must.