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.

The way of Invisible Woman

I started reading Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs last night. It is haunting me, affecting my dreams, because the voice in the early chapters is one I hear in my head all the time.

An image from my dreams of last night: Three pieces of fried chicken–two legs and a breast. My younger brother and husband are there. My brother takes the two legs, my husband, the breast. I worry about whether it is enough for them.

When I wake up I realize I didn’t even think of taking one of the pieces for myself.

The voice of the novel is like the part of myself I think of as Invisible Woman, the one who works behind the scenes, serving others and perhaps never getting around to her own art. It is the voice of both the main character in the novel, an elementary school teacher who is really an artist, and her late mother.

We are haunted by what we have not done with our lives because there is always another mess to clean up, another demand waiting to be met, someone else’s work to help with, and we are good girls. We let these things take priority. It is not in our nature to put our own work first, it simply isn’t. And sometimes this makes us really angry, not at the world but at ourselves.

However, recognizing this aspect of myself doesn’t send me into a tailspin any more. Invisible Woman has her own ways of doing things and sometimes it works out well, in a way that serves my purposes as well as other people’s. Here is a story about that.

Recently I agreed to host a dinner party for two Congolese businessmen who were visiting church agencies in the area to learn about church finances. I agreed because I believe in showing hospitality—an Invisible Woman trait. I agreed because it seemed like a simple thing, hosting a potluck for an unknown number of guests. However, potlucks require a critical mass of guests and dishes and it became apparent, in the planning, that this one wouldn’t reach that number, so I just went ahead and cooked an entire meal. This is usually no big deal for me but I was tired that day and would have preferred sitting in and watching a movie rather than pulling out my outgoing, French-speaking hostess self.

These events usually turn out to be worth the effort and this one did, too. It took a while for the Congolese men to warm up but the other Americans carried the conversation until they did and then, toward the end of the meal, I mentioned our desire—my desire, which I have persuaded my husband to share—to visit Congolese Mennonite churches sometime in the next year and listen to as many choirs as possible, to do what I’m calling choir tourism. And to write about this and maybe put together some videos.

The Congolese businessmen lit up and became downright chatty. And this is when Rod, the agency director who was squiring the Congolese about, pointed out that the first women were going to be ordained in a major branch of the Congolese Mennonite Church in September and October of this year and would I like to go and write about that?

Well I most certainly would. The ordinations, I know, will be occasion for grand celebrations, with lots of choirs joining in. It is the kind of event I was looking for.

I didn’t tell Rod that I would rather not write on assignment for church publications, that I had been set on writing entirely for my own purposes (I’m not saying “book” yet even to myself). I didn’t tell him that this next trip to Congo was to be a kind of self-test of my seriousness as a writer, a test of whether I had enough confidence in my own work to spend tons of money, uproot us for a month, and plan an arduous and complicated journey just so I could write.

I didn’t say any of this because the opportunity seemed just too serendipitous. Of course I can do some articles. The assignment will, in fact, force me to be serious about interviewing and making notes. I won’t get away with the kind of vague intention I harbored last July when I concluded that I simply wasn’t up to writing about Congo. I didn’t have the chutzpah to do interviews, the energy to write down all my observations, yada yada. No excuses this time.

Still, I managed to write quite a bit on that trip, and I had written even more on my first trip, when I had my laptop rather than the iPad with the onscreen keyboard (which I never got used to and, believe me, writing technology makes a huge difference). As for the energy I need to work hard, I’ve lost 20 pounds since last July. I am renewed, revived.

I can’t believe I shouldn’t take this opportunity to do something for someone else and use it as a way to support my own art. The money, the discipline, the deadlines will all help. I may use some of the money to hire my friend Charlie Malembe, an ambitious young Mennonite journalist in Kinshasa, to help with the interviews. She doesn’t yet know how to write for a US audience but she’s a great interviewer. My stringer. I will happily share a byline with her.

This is the way of Invisible Woman. I don’t have to do everything by myself, for myself. I am a team player. I seize opportunities that provide the momentum I can’t quite generate myself.

And, of course, the tiny bit of effort I expended to feed those two strangers (chicken grilled, not fried) will no doubt be repaid tenfold on this next trip. The Congolese are magnificent hosts.

 

Intensive living

I have a habit of posting really trivial stuff just as horrible news is breaking. Last Monday I wrote about what makes people “like” something I’ve written and then I saw the news about the Boston Marathon bombings. So there it was, the trivia of my daily preoccupations set against something really important.

This morning I was thinking of writing something but first I caught up on the news. Boston is shut down as one of the alleged killers is being pursued. A Texas fertilizer plant turns into an even bigger killer. Chicago is flooded. The Senate chickens out on gun control.

I decided to postpone writing about the Zen of sewing. Maybe later, when the news has calmed down (when will that ever happen).

When I was traveling in Congo last year I would use occasional Internet access to catch up on Facebook and other news and I would think how trivial everything happening in the USA seemed—even disasters—in the context of the struggle for survival that engaged every Congolese I knew.

It’s not that they were leading tragic lives, but they were living more intensely. Everything about life in Congo seemed more intense: pain, struggle, joy, gratitude, love, conflict, beauty, ugliness. Being in the presence of this intensity was both exhausting and exhilarating. I miss it a little now. Perhaps my hesitance to write about my life in the face of Really Big News is really a regret at the loss of intensity.

We feel empathy with those in the news, those who are really suffering. But there is something artificial about the way our national attention swings from one city to another, one distant or not-so-distant tragedy to another, our empathy drawn out over degrees of separation that only emphasize our individual powerlessness to console, heal, prevent, protect.

Living intensely is the opposite of living at the remove of distance, the remove of the news. You can only live your own life intensely, not other people’s lives.

I think of this in relation to Newtown. We have been moved by that tragedy but not enough to enact decent gun laws because too many powerful interests, deep national divisions stand in the way. Too many degrees of separation between our empathy and real change. The “timing” isn’t right; the politicians can’t manage both immigration reform and gun control in the same session.

I’m not saying we are entirely powerless. We can throw the bastards out. But that takes time, organization, determination, working together. It takes intensity, which means bringing it into the days of your own life. Like maybe working in a political campaign.

Meanwhile, I’m practicing intensive living. Some days that just means doing a sewing project and learning something from it. Maybe I’ll write about it, maybe I won’t.

Why do you like me?

I got a lot of likes from other bloggers on a recent post, My Next Big Thing. A lot by my standards, that is. My likes and follows have been trending upwards recently but this blog has not exactly gone viral.

After blogging for more than two years I am just now learning how the blogging community operates. My learning was delayed because I started out on Blogspot, where no actual networking went on as far as I could tell. I switched to WordPress last October for technical reasons and stumbled into the blogging community. WordPress has a number of features that promote networking. The main one is that when a fellow WordPress blogger likes your post you get an email saying:

“Soandso liked your post on the practical mystic.

“They thought My Next Big Thing was pretty awesome.

“You should go see what they’re up to. Maybe you’ll like their blog as much as they liked yours!”

And then it lists links to three “great posts worth seeing from Soandso.”

Out of curiosity you may check out this fellow blogger who likes what you wrote and in the process you increase the traffic to his or her site (I should give up grammatical correctness and say “their site” since “they” thought my post was awesome). I’m sure a lot of liking goes on purely to increase site stats. But it also connects you to people who might share your interests and it lets you know who your readers are, at least in the blogging world, which may not mirror the real world.

I guess the true test of love is if the blogger who likes your post begins following you, that is, getting an email every time you post. I can’t imagine inviting more email unless you truly care. I now have 56 followers, very modest by blogosphere standards but more with each post.

Since I started getting more blogger likes and follows I’ve been acting more like a community member myself, visiting blogs, occasionally liking, commenting, and following. Very occasionally. There are some gems out there but they’re rare. I am handicapped in this networking business by my writing snobbery. My remaining life is too short to spend reading bad writing and most blog writing is bad: trite, clumsy, sentimental, too much information of the wrong kind.

This is not a reflection on the blogger, just on his or her (their) writing.

Writing I willingly read doesn’t have to be perfect, just show some originality of thought or style. Something genuine. Something promising. Or, of course, a good blog might offer something helpful like recipes, though I will not follow a recipe blog that is badly written. I would like to find more life blogs like my own that meet my snobby standards but so far I’ve discovered only a few. I haven’t been looking too hard because I already spend too much time reading rather than writing or getting material for writing, that is, living. But if you have suggestions, let me know.

I know my writing snobbery puts me on the outskirts of the blogosphere because many terribly written blogs get way more likes, followers, and comments than mine. On the other hand my favorite blogger, the nature writer David George Haskell, who writes extremely well and always has something interesting to say, gets very few blogger likes. Go figure.

This brings me to the question of why that one post got so many blogger likes. It’s not just that I’m generally getting more readers, because other recent posts, which I think are more interesting, have gotten way fewer likes.

Here is my theory. It is because I wrote about being stuck in my writing and I ended the post with a tiny plea for support. “Cheer me on,” I said. And my fellow bloggers cheered.

We all need to be cheered on. Bloggers have recognized this need, both in themselves and others, and they have learned to respond. They respond to the vulnerability, the need for support, the confessions of failure and stuckness embedded in the writing, good and bad, that is being sent out into the ether.

Am I right?

Or maybe it was just some kind of weird, organized like bomb.

Clue me in. Share!

My Next Big Thing

The truth is, I’ve hit a snag. Flow stopped, motivation gone, I am at a loss for what to do next. I’m retired, I can do what I want, but that is easier said than done. What do I want?

On this warmer but still gray afternoon in early April, with only a hint of green and hepatica (yay, hepatica!)  in the forest leaf cover, I feel like I have started a thought and lost it, mid-sentence. What were all these plans I had as recently as January 1? I had what I thought was a year’s worth of desires lined up. All I had to do was follow through.

hepatica

Yay, hepatica!

Maybe it wasn’t a year’s worth; maybe only three months’ worth.

No, that’s not quite right. Some of those plans are accomplished, ta-da, done! Or almost. I work really fast when I put my mind to it. Others are not yet fully executed. I have done the easy parts and many of the hard parts but now there are some really hard parts left and I am running out of steam.

In the accomplished column is the publication of a book that I thought I would never finish writing and revising, let alone publish. Ta-da, done! I did this much faster than I thought possible and had fun mastering self-publishing, which has come a long way in the last few years.

In the nearly accomplished category: weight loss. I thought I couldn’t do it and then I did it. Ta-da, goal in sight!

Yet to do: get back to biking. But I have made progress by finding the guy who will help me get on the right bike. I will visit that shop outside Detroit again in the next month. Meanwhile, I will start to toughen my butt on my old bike as soon as the conditions are right. (I require temps in the 50s or above but not too hot, no rain, not too much wind. Today is a tiny bit rainy and besides I already got my exercise at the Y.)

However, what is really bothering me on this too-open afternoon, making me feel like a cowardly, unmotivated lazybones, is that I haven’t yet started my Next Big Writing Project.

But come to think of it, that’s not true. I have started the project but it is not yet at the writing stage.

  • I think I know what it is. I want to write about Mennonites in Congo and the power of music and faith in some of the toughest circumstances on the globe.
  • Since making two trips to Congo last year, I have been working on developing a special relationship between my church here and a congregation in Kinshasa.
  • I have revived the Congo Cloth Connection to create relationships and fund projects for women and children in Congo–we’ll do another big cloth market at the Mennonite Church USA convention in Phoenix in July.
  • And I am starting to think about my next trip to Congo.

I am hung up on this last point, however, the next trip. This will be a trip I do entirely on my own except my husband will go with me this time. But no sponsoring project, no special occasion like a centennial celebration, no fellow travelers. I want to go to visit churches and listen to as many choirs as possible. I want to go to write. This would be a research trip for my Next Big Writing Project.

There is a gap between the desire to do a thing–go to Congo on our own and listen to choirs–and making that happen. It is in this gap that the desire begins to doubt itself. Do I want this badly enough to do everything it takes to make it happen? All the money, logistics, contacts needed to travel in that compelling, outrageous country. Just for me. Just to write.

I need to believe in myself both as a doer and as a writer in order to move off square one. I am writing this as a statement of intention. If you wish, hold me accountable. Cheer me on.

First Things first

There are so many things I have to do first thing in the morning.

I have to have my tea.

I have to have my breakfast and take my meds.

I have to have my fire in winter and it is still winter.

I have to satisfy my curiosity about the world and my friends.

I have to meditate.

I have to journal.

I have to do my alignment exercises.

That last thing, the alignment exercises, is the newest First Thing I’ve introduced into my morning but I’ve noticed that recently it has fallen by the wayside.

There is no order to these things; it’s more like, I have to do each one of these things first. So many morning urgencies.

When I look at this list I understand why the new morning practice of exercises has gotten lost. Why do I think I have to do them first thing in the morning? Because the guy who wrote the book said I should. “Do these exercises first thing in the morning so you get the benefits all day.” Of course.

Same thing with the journaling. I subscribe to Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages theory, expounded in The Artist’s Way: that writing just after rolling out of bed gets your creative juices flowing and of course if you have had dreams that is the time to get them down.

And I also believe that the day should begin with God because (apologies to God and Coke) Things Go Better with God. So I do want to meditate for 20 minutes. First thing.

However, if I listen to my sleepy mind and spirit and my chilly body, I really want that hot tea and warm fire first. And I have to take a daily pill before I forget and it has to go with food so I make and eat breakfast while I’m at it. So that’s three First Things right there.

fire

If Hazel were here she would trump all First Things but she isn’t and Vic isn’t and so today I have only the fire.

And if I open my computer to journal, how can I avoid checking email, news headlines, and Facebook? This is just normal human curiosity. Maybe this is why Cameron was pretty adamant about Morning Pages being written by hand. But The Artist’s Way was written pre-Facebook. She just thought creativity demanded handwriting. Not for me. I’ve been journaling on the computer for 15 years. This is especially important now because if I start journaling something cool I can ease right into writing a blog post, which is what I am doing right now.

So blogging inserts itself as yet another First Thing today. Plus, I really intended to carry the laundry basket down to the basement and start a load of laundry First Thing so it could dry on the racks during the day but by the time I’d pulled my clothes on and remembered to put in my hearing aids (another First Thing) I forgot the laundry.

laundry

Just as well because yet another First Thing was calling me as I looked out the window and saw yet another lake-effect snow decorating the landscape on this First Day of Spring and I just had to get that picture on Facebook First Thing, before anyone else did.

snow

And while I was taking pictures I noticed my iPad had captured a nice view of my kilim that didn’t show the dirt.

kilim

But before posting to FB I had to check if anyone else had posted the snow and they hadn’t, but I read what they had posted including some articles. And of course I checked email.

But before that I did make the tea and my breakfast smoothie (recipe below) and the fire so I could be warm and cozy and optimistic while I held my warm Mac on my lap, surfing and writing. And I shared a tiny bit of milk with the cat (whole milk for my tea is my daily deviation from my Lenten vegan diet).

So I have been up for a couple of hours and still have a number of First Things to do, including meditate.

Fortunately I don’t have to go to work anywhere or get any kids ready for school or walk down to a river to get water or any of the other First Things my sisters around the world have to do.

African

Photo by Kongo Lisolo

But I think I need to find another slot in the day for those alignment exercises. It’s almost lunchtime.

First Thing in the Morning Smoothie Which Tastes Better Than You Think

Blend in the food processor:

1 cup raw oatmeal

2 T ground flax or whatever healthy additives you are into (I add a green veggie energy powder which makes this smoothie ugly brown)

1 orange

a handful of berries (I like frozen blueberries)

some applesauce or a banana

a splash of whatever milk you are into, or unsweetened yogurt

This serves two, or you for two days. The oatmeal gets even thicker by Day Two.

A lost dream

This morning I woke with a stressful dream about being in a barren, cement barracks with a group divided into men and women. We all have to take showers, get dressed, and get to a choral rehearsal across an unknown city, by unknown means, by an unknown but precise deadline. I get into the wrong bathroom, the men’s, and then get to the women’s but have to get something in a room and then can’t find the bathroom where I’d left my towel. Many more complications. I may not get the shower. I am wearing a long yellow dress with navy patterned tights and cloddy shoes. Will it do? I wake searching and searching.

This has echoes of the terrific novel I’m reading, The Orphan Master’s Son, which is getting more and more disturbing as it progresses. But the most distressing thing is that this frenetic dream wiped out a dream image from the middle of the night that I felt was important and that I surely could remember though I didn’t wake enough to write it down.

I lose dreams all the time and I always regret it. What treasure of wisdom or entertainment is now lost to me forever because the bubble burst before I could capture it in my memory?

Yesterday, though, I found a dream that had gone missing and it really was important. It belonged in my book, The Dream Matrix, but it ended up on the cutting floor in my last revision. Without it some later references make no sense.

When I discovered the mistake I immediately revised the book. This is one great advantage of self-publishing. The changes get registered almost immediately. If you already have a copy of the book and would like to have the missing dream, email me at njmyers@mindspring.com. It goes into the first letter in Chapter 3.

This discovery just goes to prove my own maxim that even a great editor (which I am) needs an editor. I dare you to find a typo in this book! And it reads really, really well. But earlier I almost ended up with two chapter fives.

I didn’t discover the missing dream. My wonderful writing mentor, Deena Metzger, who had read earlier versions of the manuscript, pointed it out. She actually remembered the dream, as I did—it was still in my head, which was why I didn’t notice that it had gone missing in the final revision.

Like any great teacher she tacked the note about the missing dream as a P.S. onto an ode of praise for the book. She claims she says these things not because she knows and loves me or because she is connected to the book:

I finished your book yesterday.  I had read it, rapt, whenever I could during the day. It is an extraordinary text.  Beautiful. . . .  And brilliant.  Startling in its insight, perception and intelligence. . . . We, readers, know at the end something of the possible range of what it means to be human, the potential for extraordinary understanding and accomplishment despite, or because of, the struggles and difficulties that we all encounter.

[As] one who was present for some of this and has read much of it before [I am] awed, really, by your ability to render the great mystery of connection with so much light and so lightly.  By your ability to render the great mystery of connection!  I am and am not surprised that Spirit would challenge two women who were raised in and practice a soulful religious path to see what else exists, how else Spirit moves in the world so that Spirit’s ways might become known so that we can begin to live accordingly.

Dream and daily life, religion and Spirit, meanness and generosity, possibility and devastation, dolphins, beached and leaping, Aberdeen and sacred trees, the grove restored, hard and relentless work about nuclear and environmental danger, the world restoried, and friendship, friendship, friendship, and love in so many of its forms, lived truly and passionately from the heart.

These words do not come close but your words do come close.  I will try to find the right words to honor your heartfelt work. . . .

I want everyone to read the book so they will know what writing is and can be, also, what might happen in a circle, what might come to be if one gives oneself, despite or through, skepticism, to everything that is indeed occurring and related in the holy universe that is without limitation.

If you aspire to write soulfully and for the soul of the world, you should work with Deena. If you want to know what that is like, read this book. You can start by telling and writing your dreams to a friend.

 

Moving through bogs

The Niles, MI Envirothon team at Dayton Wet Prairie

Yesterday we got to step into our local ecological treasure, a rare wet prairie. It was the prairie’s annual “open house,” when a botanist leads a tour into the fragile terrain. The conservation group doesn’t want the general public traipsing through just any day but that’s not much of a problem since the 40 acres of the preserve flank a little-used dirt road and the prairie itself is, well, wet. The ground is squishy. Jump on it in your rubber boots and it bounces.

We followed botanist Bob and a very well-informed group of high school students a little way into the wetland and were introduced to some of the more obscure members of the ecosystem, from sharp rice grass to the last blooming fringed gentian. The students are thrilled with a plan to close up a ditch that had been struck through the prairie years ago. The idea is to return more natural flooding to the area. Combined with an imminent burn, the project may restore the prairie to a more natural state. We can watch this happen in coming weeks and years. It was a good day.

It reminded me of this month in my personal life, a combination of treading carefully and taking decisive actions that feel like the equivalent of flooding and burning. Will these moves clear out the invasive fears and distractions? Will new growth be sturdy, natural, harmonious? There will be changes.

Last week, between making Earth First orchard’s last bushel of organic seconds into applesauce and hosting our annual fall party for city friends, I finished a book.

This is a book I thought I would never finish. I have been trying to tell this story, in one form after another, intermittently, for 14 years. That makes it sound monumental. It is not. It is a small story, fragile as a boggy ecosystem. The problem has been understanding it well enough to tell it. It has been a challenge of capturing, describing, defining something that defies linear storytelling conventions because it is all about connections.

I thought I had given up on it. I set it aside nearly two years ago, feeling utterly defeated. I did not want to look at the manuscript ever again, but I discovered several weeks ago that it was still wearing a hole in my heart. And so last week, on a warm, sunny day, I took the manuscript to the most beautiful place in the neighborhood, high up on a dune overlooking Lake Michigan, and dared myself to read it one last time. Dared. It took a lot of courage to face my own inadequacy as a writer.

The astonishing thing was, I began to love the story again, and the way I had told it. It stood up to the natural beauty around me. I saw that it was almost finished. It needed one last trim and some minor shifts, which I did in a few hours later in the week.

I will not say more about it now because releasing it into the world depends on a number of considerations, which I am wading through at the moment, jumping lightly on the bog to test the reverberations. But for the first time in all my attempts to tell this story, I have told it to my own satisfaction.

I feel cleaned out, flooded, burned, ready for the next creative project.