During the past several days I have started to write a post, and then stopped. Started, then stopped. And I’ll tell you exactly the thought process, verbatim, that has raced through my mind each time I sat down to write. Who cares? Why me? How can writing possibly help with the state of the world is in such profound chaos? What makes me think I have anything to contribute? Isn’t writing somehow self-indulgent? Shouldn’t I be out there in the world, at every possible waking moment, making some sort of real difference?
Sound familiar? I have felt this way twice before in my writing life. The first time was when my son was terribly sick as an infant with a rare disease, and the odds were stacked against him. Each day, as he slept, I sat in my office and stared at the wall. Why be a writer? I asked myself. It seemed the most frivolous thing I could imagine. People were out there going to medical school, or becoming nurses, or developing experimental treatments that saved lives. And what was I doing? Making things up. I stayed stuck for a good long while. I stayed stuck until one day, while having coffee with a writer friend, I was talking about my terror about my son, and she said: write about that. And so I did. I wrote an essay, and then a novel, about maternal anxiety. It was all I cared about. All I knew about. I poured my heart and soul onto the page because that’s what I am and that’s what I do. Which is to say, I am a writer. I’m not a doctor, a nurse, a scientist. I’m a writer, and a writer writes.
The second time I stared at a wall for a long time was after 9/11. Every artist and writer I knew was doing the same. How to create, from inside the devastation and the madness? How to make meaning when all felt meaningless? We walked around, shadow selves, ghost-like, as we attempted to metabolize a level of collective pain and trauma that seemed impossible to absorb. During that time, William Faulnker’s Nobel acceptance speech was circulated, sent from writer to writer, pressed from hand to hand, a reminder to get back to work despite fear, despite terror, despite a sense of futility. Get back to work. “There are no longer problems of the spirit,” Faulkner rails against precisely that sense of futility. “There is only the question, when will I be blown up?”
Problems of the spirit. It seems to me that this is what writes grapple with every single day when we sit down to work.
Love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.
Which is not to say that I am not filled to the brim with a sense of moral outrage and that every cell in my body does wish to protest during these dark, dark days. I’m doing what I can in that regard — as we all must. But there is another kind of protest, another way of refusing to succumb to despair. And so we sit down to write. We ignore the inner voice telling us that there’s no point, it doesn’t matter. We grapple with the problems of the spirit, of the human heart and all it contains. It matters more than ever.
Whenever I’m in the yoga pose of Warrior II, I think about finding that elusive balance between the past and the future. Lean back, and we find ourselves mired in what has already happened. Regret, remorse, guilt, sorrow, grief — whatever the emotional residue may be, we go there. We go there again and again, even though going there changes nothing.
Notice I say “we.” I’m distancing myself even as I write, moving away from the “I” and from the welter of feelings that arise when I attempt to tell the truth of myself.
So then: I.
When I lean forward, into the future, I am also off-balance, out of alignment. Hope, fear, excitement, anxiety, grasping — I go there too. I go there again and again, even though going there also changes nothing. I cannot control the future any more than I can change the past. All I can do is be present. But I shy away from the present because the present is full of terrible ambiguity. It changes from moment to moment to moment. Breathe in, breathe out, and all is changing. If I don’t know what’s going to happen next, and if I can’t make sense of what has already happened, then where is the ground of the present? And if the present is groundless, what is there to hold onto? What are these tears just behind my eyes?
It has been a hard year. We’re all ready to see it go. (There I go again!) The world is a newly alien, terrifying place. There is such a collective sense of grief and loss – and also of community and gathering. Personally it has been a year of enormous challenges. Many days I’ve felt overwhelmed to the point of numbness and despair. And so when it came time to write this last post of the year, I’ve found myself starting and stopping, writing and deleting, thinking that most toxic of thoughts, at least for a writer: I have nothing to say. The truth is that I am spilling over with so much to say that the words start dueling with each other. This is a year in which I have learned more about shock, loss, grief, secrets, heritage, strength, kindness, courage, family, home, and above all, the ways the human heart can stretch and enlarge to accommodate new truths. I’ve learned that I am surrounded by enormously loving people who will catch me if I fall, if only I am strong enough to let them. This is counter intuitive, I know. It takes strength to say: I’m hurting. Strength to say: I’m vulnerable. I’m fragile. This is hard. This is too much to bear. But the moment I do, I find I am given just what I need.
And so, my friends, I wish every single one of you the gift of presence. To quote Mary Oliver: “And that is just the point: how the world, moist and bountiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. ‘Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?'”
Happy Hannukah, Merry Christmas, and a peaceful 2017 to us all.
It’s the question that always gets asked. When I’m teaching, or giving a reading, or an interview, at some point, someone will raise her hand: what did your family think of Slow Motion? Or Devotion? How do you write about those you love, those you’ve lost, those who have hurt you? Is anything or anyone off limits? Is there a line you won’t cross?
As many times as I’ve responded to this line of questioning – and as much as I actually enjoy exploring the thorniness of the issue – I feel myself tense as I begin to answer, because there is no answer. I know it, and I feel my interlocutor must know it too. After all, writing is – as Joan Didion inimitably put it – “the tactic of a secret bully.” Writing about other people is, according to Janet Malcolm, “morally indefensible.” When Still Writing came out, Cynthia Ozick, a writer I admire enormously, sent me a note saying some very nice things about the book which also included the following thought: But you are not a monster.
She did not mean this as a compliment. Implicit in her words – and Didion’s, and Malcolm’s, I think – is the idea that it is essential, in the name of art, not to care. A scorched earth philosophy, in opposition to morality. Art trumps ethics. Self-expression takes no prisoners.
I don’t know.
From where I sit in my office, on my chaise, I am surrounded by family photographs: my husband on a rooftop in Mogadishu, cupping his hands around a cigarette. my father and my aunt when they were children; my husband and me on our wedding day; my grandmother elegant in a fur stole; my husband swinging our then four-year-old son in our backyard. They watch over me as I write, and they serve as a reminder that I am part of a family, part of a community. I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a daughter-in-law, a sister-in-law, an aunt, a niece, a cousin, a friend, a teacher, a mentor. There’s a responsibility in all this – to others, as well as to the art.
But when I sit down to write a first draft — the one in which I discover what I’m trying to say — I look away from these photographs. This is when I grow fangs, and my breath turns fiery. This is when I come closest to being a monster. I write to find out what I know, what I think, what I fear. And I can’t do that if I’m censoring myself. I don’t need to worry about anyone else, because no one else will be reading this draft. This is such an important point for writers to remember. We can always dial it back, revise, rethink, later. In fact, we had better do all these things. But until we let the monster out of her hiding place, we won’t even know her face.
And so, no, when it comes to releasing my work into the world, I am not a monster. I would never willingly, consciously hurt anyone I love. I would, in fact, never willingly, consciously hurt anyone at all. Does this mean no one has ever been hurt? No, no it doesn’t. But I can say that I try. I consider carefully. I weigh every word. To write is to attempt to tell a truth. Not the truth. Not another person’s truth. But a truth. And in order to tell it, first we must find it. All we know, all we have, is our own experience, our own consciousness, memory, and imagination. These are our tools. And so with deliberation and consciousness and care, we wield them.
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I’ve just finished my new book. Whenever, in my life, I’ve completed this sentence – I’ve just finished my new book — I’m haunted by a sense that I must be lying, that the book can’t possibly be finished. And, in a way, of course it’s not. After a while, after it grows cold, as a dear friend likes to say, I will dive back into it and revise, chisel, hone, clarify, see previously unconscious connections. I will make it better until I can no longer make it any better. And then I will abandon it to the world.
My students and other writers I know who are early in their creative lives think that must be the best part — the time when a book is “abandoned” to the world. Book parties! Interviews! Travel! Readings! Radio! And I assure them that it isn’t. Their eyes glaze over. They don’t believe me. Easy for you to say. I can practically see the words as they think them. But it’s true. The best part – the part every artist lives for – is the complete immersion when on the home stretch. The whole world seems to collaborate with us during these days, weeks, months in which we’re finishing. Overheard dialogue, a flock of gulls against a gray sky, the angle of a man’s head as he sits on a park bench reading a tattered paperback – all seem electric, inter-connected. As I was finishing this book, I wandered into my local bookstore looking for a particular poem by Richard Wilbur I was certain I needed. The book wasn’t in stock, but misshelved in the W’s was a volume of poems by Wendell Berry I hadn’t read before, and contained within it a poem that was precisely what I needed but hadn’t known. That kind of thing happens when in the powerful flow of finishing.
But then…then what? I’ve been bereft, these last weeks. After training my whole heart, soul, intellect, everything I have within me, on finding the precise language for feeling – all that’s left is the feeling. What do we do with feelings we can’t contain, place, label, name? The chaos we can’t turn into art? With feelings that leak out around all that precise language and are still there, because finding the language may make art, and perhaps art heals the reader or viewer, but it doesn’t heal the artist or writer. Nor should it. Making art is not an act of catharsis. If anything, it embeds our narrative ever more deeply within us by freezing it in time. It transforms us – yes – but as anyone who has ever really gone there will tell you – transformation is painful and oh, it is ongoing.
In recent years my work has grown more and more distilled. I used to be interested in great big sweeping stories. I still enjoy reading them, sometimes, but I’m no longer pulled to write them. What drives me, excites me, makes me want to get up in the morning and write, read, live, is what pulses beneath the narrative – whether a fictional narrative or the well-worn narrative of my own life. What does transformation carry in its wake? How do I plumb the depths of now? How do I inhabit a consciousness – mine, or a fictional character’s – in order to get at what’s true, all the while knowing that what’s true is ever-evolving?
See, this is the kind of thing this writer thinks about when she’s in the space of the in-between. (It’s probably a little like going off your meds.) It’s uncomfortable, to be sure. The soil is dark, dank, its gifts revealed only through patience and time. So over these holiday weeks I will stay as quiet as I can. I will read books that nourish me. I will meditate each morning. I will seek the company of those who ennoble my spirit, or make me laugh (or both.) I will keep a notebook with me, make notes about the inner storm, and try to observe it, as if through a leaded window in a beautiful castle, a warm room, a safe place. Look, there’s the lashing rain. The bolt of lightning. Look, the world, lit up, then washed clean.
I’m back on the chaise. I’ve just finished with the last full week of teaching I’ll be doing until March. All summer long, I’ve wondered what this moment would feel like. I have no flights scheduled, no dates on my calendar (except for a few small weekend retreats like this one and this one) and a real swath of time stretched out before me. A magic carpet, rolled out, ready for me to step onto it with the intention of finishing a draft of my new book.
Today is the day. The fluffy white dog is lying by my feet. I’m wearing the world’s most comfortable sweatpants, a favorite yoga tee shirt, and a ratty cardigan. My hair is a mess. My glasses perched on the bridge of my nose. My house empty — husband doing errands, boy on a boat ride. Just a couple of weeks ago, a photographer was here to take my portrait for an upcoming essay. I was sitting just here, the fluffy white dog just there, and I quipped: this is exactly what my life looks like. And she responded: it looks pretty damned perfect.
Ah, yes. Here I am in my perfect life. There’s only one problem with it. Can you guess what problem might be?
Inside my head, all is chaos. Tears are backed up behind my eyes. I can barely sit still. The deepest parts of myself, unfathomable. This summer involved an unusual number of workshops, readings, or other business in Seattle, Aspen, Vermont, LA, Atlanta, Rhinebeck, Salisbury, Provincetown — with many days in New York City in between. It has been a summer in which I led meditations, lectured, dove deeply into student work. A summer in which I said yes to judging a couple of awards and fellowships that have required an insane amount of reading. A summer I have taken care of my family as best as I know how. A summer I have loved – completely loved – and yet I am here, as parts of myself feel as fragile as small birds riding wind currents, trying to find their way back to me.
Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular hours.
I think of this as protecting my instrument – and yours. When that instrument is out of whack – and mine is now – it is my job to go back to the simplicity of Kenyon’s list. To have patience. And above all to understand that the noisy, noisy world we live in – with its carnival of distractions and enticements – is not where we find the words. The words are stones at the bottom of the sea. We train ourselves. We expand our capacity to hold our breath underwater. And then we dive – alone, we dive. Sometimes we emerge, gasping, our hands empty. But if we dive deep for enough successive days, weeks, months, years, decades, a lifetime — we might – just might – emerge with something new, some fragile, shimmering thing no one has ever seen before.
Lately people have been asking me what I’m working on. A perfectly reasonable question, though one that strikes terror and dread in the hearts of most writers. If we’re not in the midst of a book, the question makes us feel guilty and fretful. If we are in the midst of a book, we need to find ways of answering in a way that doesn’t take away from the work itself. I’ve come to think of this as a sentence that doesn’t cost me much – if anything at all. But part of the problem, in my case, is that I’ve grown slightly allergic to the word memoir. After all, I’ve written two, no, three, if you include Still Writing, which is a memoir at least in part. So: three memoirs. And now that I am well into a new book, and it is decidedly not a novel, I have been searching for another word for what I’m doing, a word that doesn’t drag along quite so much baggage in its wake.
I’ve tried: I’m writing a book-length lyric essay.
I’ve tried: I’m writing a work of creative non-fiction.
Both of these sound pretentious to me.
I’ve tried: I’m writing a memoirish-type thing.
I’ve tried mumbling incoherently and hoping the subject will miraculously be changed.
But finally what I’ve arrived at is this: I’m writing an Inquiry.
Everything I’ve ever written might be described as an inquiry. My novels all begin with questions – though these questions may not be ones I can articulate when I begin. My novel Family History circled around the question of what it might take to shake a happy contented marriage to its core. My novel Black & White centered on questions about motherhood and art. Devotion was a spiritual inquiry. The memoir aspects of Still Writing were an inquiry into what was formative for me as a writer. And now my questions have evolved into ones about marriage and time.
It wasn’t what I wanted to write about it.
To be honest, it scares the living shit out of me.
But this is the book that has been banging against my ribcage, insisting.
I write in order to discover what I don’t yet know. To peel back the layers and see what has been previously hidden from view. I don’t choose the form this discovery takes. When I have tried to force the form, it turns around and bites me. And so I have learned to pay attention to what the work itself wants to be. If we’re quiet, the work announces itself. When it makes itself known, we had best pay attention.
And so, when I’m asked, I now respond that I’m writing an inquiry into marriage and time.
How do we find the right words to describe what we’re doing? Because when we land on them, we know they’re true.
Lately I’ve been moving at a rapid clip. My bags are no sooner unpacked, it seems, then once again I’m pulling them from the closet, and completing my flight’s online check-in. My desk is littered with lists. . My toiletries are in a plastic bag filled with sample sizes. I’m reading more on screens — lots of downloaded sample chapters. Little bite-sized pieces of literature. My dogs are confused. They hang their heads when they hear the zip of a suitcase. My husband and I compare calendars, hoping we might be in the same place at the same time. It’s all good. That’s what I keep saying, and in fact, it’s true. It is all good. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t challenging. Or complex. Or difficult to navigate while staying true to my deepest self.
As I write these words, I am once again stretched out on my chaise, in my office at home. My dogs are sleeping near me. The house is quiet. This is my natural habitat, that place where I come to know what’s happening in my heart and mind. We all have such a place, if only we are able to identify it for ourselves. For some of us, we become reacquainted with ourselves in nature. For others, it’s during meditation or yoga. Others find it in music. In silence. In community. But when we stray too far from whatever it is that allows us to know what’s going on, we risk losing our center. I think of it as a pilot light, always burning inside of me. It’s there –– just as the breath is there –– but if I ignore it, it can’t catch hold. It can’t set aflame any ideas or insights or emotional truths. It just dims and sputters.
A couple of weeks ago, I led a remarkable retreat with a small group of spectacular women writers, and invited a very dear friend of mine who is a great yoga teacher to join us. She led us in two very beautiful asana practices, and at the start of one of these practices, she read “The Winter of Listening “ by the poet David Whyte.
No one but me by the fire / my hands burning / red in the palms while / the night wind carries / everything away outside. / All this petty worry / while the great cloak of the sky grows dark / and intense / round every living thing.
What is precious / inside us does not care / to be known /by the mind / in ways that diminish its presence. / What we strive for / in perfection / is not what turns us / into the lit angel / we desire, / what disturbs and then nourishes us has everything we need.
What disturbs and then nourishes us has everything we need.
The truth of these words penetrated me on that blustery winter afternoon as the great cloak of the sky grew dark around me. Whatever I know, whatever I have learned, whatever glimmers of wisdom I have gained in my life, has come from what has disturbed and then nourished me. Think of the way a wound heals, that tender, shiny new skin knitting itself together, protecting, yes, but also signaling: something happened here. If we are fortunate enough to live long and full lives, we are covered with these scars, these disturbances. What we do with them is our choice. What disturbs does not have everything we need. Only what disturbs then nourishes. If we take in the difficulty, turn it over in our minds, feel the facets in our hearts, find the stillness to grow and understand –– well, then we are making something profound out of our experience.
And if we are artists, this is the way we make art.
As I wrote the title for today’s post, I thought back to the title of Grace Paley‘s story collection, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. One of the great titles ever. Do enormous changes ever come upon us in any way, other than the last minute? We apply ourselves each day. We show up. We practice our craft. We love the people we love. We try to be good friends. To be kind. Compassionate. We soften into life, like velveteen rabbits. And then one day –– at what feels like the last minute –– we discover that maybe we know a little something. That we’ve changed. Altered in some way that will serve us and the people around us. It has happened so slowly that we hadn’t even known anything was happening at all. And then it is here. Seismic. Something has shifted.
When I say we, I of course mean me. I mean all of us –– but my experience is all I have. So yesterday, during a conversation with my fourteen year old son, I had a shock of awareness that maybe, just maybe, I had learned something along the way. A small but seismic piece of wisdom that I could share with him. One that I had begun to live –– without ever putting into words.
And. Not but.
Without getting into details, we were talking about some difficult feelings. Have you ever met a fourteen year old –– or a human being, for that matter –– who doesn’t experience difficult feelings? I was trying to console him. To tell him that things would improve. That he wouldn’t always feel exactly this way. And as he responded to me, the first word out of his mouth was but. But…
And I stopped him.
No, I said. Don’t say but. Say and.
Our lives are not comprised of this but that. But rather, this and that. We are full of contradictions. Our joys are bittersweet. Our sorrows stem from love. Our growth is painful. The lessons we learn –– the ones that allow us to move forward in life -– are so often fraught. This and that.
As I write, I’m sitting in a beautiful hotel room in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There is a siren in the distance. Somewhere, someone is getting a traffic ticket, or has fallen on the sidewalk, or is robbing a convenience store. The steeples and domes of Harvard University –– a school I didn’t even dare dream of attending when I was a kid –– are in the distance. The autumn leaves on the trees in the courtyard below are a riot of color. As usual, a cappuccino has grown cold at my side. Across the room, my husband is preparing for the festival release of his beautiful film this weekend. I’m speaking to some wonderful booksellers tonight, giving a reading on Wednesday night. Tears are springing to my eyes as I write these words. And. Not but.
I spent a lot of years selling myself short. A lot of years feeling that I didn’t deserve, couldn’t shouldn’t, wouldn’t. My dreams –– if I had dreams at all –- were shockingly small, as if I had gotten the message, somewhere along the line, that I didn’t deserve much. That if I was pretty, I couldn’t also be smart. That if I had made a mess of my romantic life when I was younger, that meant I wouldn’t be allowed to be happily married. That if I had a difficult mother, that meant I wouldn’t know how to be a mother myself. And that if somehow I managed to grab a bigger piece of the pie than I deserved –– happiness, success, a bountiful life –– that something terrible would happen. The other shoe would drop.
This and that, I said to my beautiful son.
Hold it all. Cup your hands and let the world pour in. Say yes, not no. Yes to bounty, to the lessons, the gladness, the pain, the fleeting joy, the opportunities that your life is offering you. Strike the buts from your very heart. That smallness, pettiness, stinginess and fear has no place in this life you’re living. Take this day –– this one, precious day –– and face into the wind. Remember what the great Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield has to say about what it is to be human: this too, this too, this too….