the writing life

For the last couple of months at Hunger Mountain, Claire Guyton, former Art +Life editor, and I have been working together to expand that section of the journal into The Writing Life.

Here’s what’s up and coming at

THE WRITING LIFE:

1) ANOTHER LOOSE SALLY - Hunger Mountain’s blog about writers and writing anchored by Claire Guyton (check in every Thursday!)

~june 16: The Catch / june 9: Shape is the Thing / june 3: Envisioning Concrete Pianos /may 26: New Writing Rule

2) AUTHOR VISITS  - interviews with the Hunger Mountain contributors

3) CRAFT SHORTS & ESSAYS - large and small doses of craft (online submissions for both forms now open)

~first short: On Endings: 11 Strategies by David Jauss

~May essay: Conjuring the Magic of Story by Stephanie Friedman

4) LISTS: LITERARY & LAUNDRY - coming soonpostcards from the organizational side of the writing brain

5) WRITER, INC., debuting in September, memos from the business of the writer’s life 

6) REVIEWS GONE SIDEWAYS - coming soon – anything but your mother’s reviews.

Check us out here

and

stay tuned!

staying in the room

I wanted another cup of tea, but I kept hearing Ron Carlson‘s voice: The writer is the person who stays in the room.

So I kept staying and kept writing. Out of the corner of my eye, out the window to my right, I could see what I assumed was lots of squirrel action. I finished my sentence and looked up. Foxes! Three of them.

By the time I got my camera out of my desk and turned on, two of them had run off. This last little fox didn’t know where his friends had gone, but he set off after them anyway.

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so this morning

So this morning, at the suggestion of a reader, I took myself outside before I did anything else. Up and out my driveway for a walk–to wake the mind and the body at the same time.

Seventy-four degrees in Columbus, Georgia, with a light breeze. Wonderful in the shade.

And on my walk it came to me that I hadn’t taken an essay I wrote for my last packet of the semester (dropped in the FedEx box last night around six) far enough. This is the kind of thought that’s most likely to occur when my mind is free to roam. Which underscores the importance to writing of time away from desk or computer.

From The Maytrees:

Every book he read was a turn he took…He started new notebooks without having made the least sense of any old notebook.

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send in the elves

My desk this morning, instead of being covered with books and manuscript pages, is covered with Christmas lists. I want to write, but it’s hard to draw my mind away from the unanswered questions and undone errands on my list–with the clock ticking.

I wondered how other writers managed to focus at this time of the year. So I reached for May Sarton‘s Journal of a Solitude, written from September to September–1970 to 1971, I think. And guess what? As far as December, there’s an entry for the 2nd and then nothing until January.

It’s like falling into a black hole. In December, most of all, it’s a struggle to claw through the must-do’s, the should-do’s, and the do-nows to find something real. In December, it definitely takes both hands to catch a day. So I’m going to aim for a minute here and there. Maybe an hour. I’m not going to give in. I’m going to take a deep breath. Read a few words. Write a sentence.

In her January 2nd entry, May Sarton writes,

“Iimg_1190 can understand people simply fleeing the mountainous effort Christmas has become even for those, like me, without children. Everyone must feel revolt as I do about the middle of December when I am buried under the necessity of finding presents, the immense effort of wrapping and sending, and the never-ended guilt about unsent cards…”

In an attempt at a real thought for today, I leave you with this. In her last entry in the book, she suggests that writing is a “messenger of growth,” that from where we are, “we write toward what we will become…”

[Something about my desk this morning felt familiar, hence this re-post from December 19, 2008.]

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writing retreat

My writing group is meeting in the Napa Valley this weekend to write.

Usually we meet to read and critique each other’s work.

On our breaks we take the waters or a mud bath or a culinary excursion to Mustard’s, Greystone, or Ad Hoc.

I am encouraged by the little frog outside who stops croaking if I open my door and from the shapes and colors inside and out.

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a kind of fugue

Polly Thayer's portrait of May Sarton owned by the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University

“There is nothing to be done but go ahead with life moment by moment and hour by hour–put out birdseed, tidy the rooms, try to create order and peace around me even if I cannot achieve it inside me.” May Sarton.

As the last days of summer float by, I’m thinking about reclaiming control of my days. I want to read more and write more, lose fewer hours to Twitter and Facebook, the internet in general.

Social networking does have a place. It helps me stay current with the latest articles on writing and books. It helps me feel connected to the writing community. And it’s a way to let others know what I’m doing. As Lori A. May pointed out in a recent post I discovered on Twitter, “For a writer, it’s not only about writing.”

“I am in a limbo that needs to be patterned from within….this problem of ordering a day that has no pattern imposed on it from without.” Again May Sarton.

Last week a friend and I were brainstorming about how to order our days. First we made a list of deadlines and everything we wanted and needed to do. Then we made daily, less-than-daily-and-more-than-weekly, and weekly lists. Finally we talked about what shape we wanted the mornings, afternoons, and evenings to take.

“That was what I was after–a daily rhythm, a kind of fugue of poetry, gardening, sleeping and waking in the house.” Yes, May Sarton.

Lori May eschews the word schedule as antithetical to writing. She refers, instead, to a plan of attack. I like that. I also like fugue for its sense of interweaving of parts, for its writerly rhythm. So yes, I am working on a plan of attack, in order to create my daily rhythm–a kind of fugue of reading, writing, blogging, connecting, and living.

Eleanor Marie Sarton was born in Belgium in 1912. All of her quotes in this post can be found in  Journal of a Solitude, published in 1973.

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some days

IMG_1046Anne Enright, the author of The Gathering, winner of the 2007 Man Booker Prize, just wants to write, but as Dani Shapiro recently pointed out, some days it’s easier than others.

“I need to write,” Enright said. “I go bonkers a bit if I don’t.”

I do as well. Some days I go bonkers even if I do write.

Looking over The Gathering this morning as a way to begin my writing day, I was again struck by the way Enright uses repetition. Of course, one of the “rules” of writing is to avoid repetition. It’s tedious to readers; it can make them go bonkers.

Not, however,when the repetition is intentional and the sound of the sentence rolling off the tongue makes you want to read it over and over again. Take a look at these two beautiful sentences:

“I close my eyes against the warm sunlight and doze beside the dozing stranger on the Brighton train.”

“I was back to school runs and hoovering and ringing other-mothers for other-mother things…”

Enright writes when she can and where she can, with no set hours and no word or page targets. You can take a look at one of the places she writes here.

 

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a room with a view

So the logical, orderly side of me  is distressed that I haven’t better organized this trilogy of posts–my writing room, the writer’s desk, and today, a room with a view. Instead it’s the writer’s side of me that has let one thing lead to another and then overlap and circle around. My first choice would be to delete all three posts, reorganize, and re-post, but I’m trying to go with it.

In the last two posts, I’ve felt the absence of two things. The first is a more specific reference to Virginia Woolf’s words read to the Arts Society in October 1928 and collected in the book, A Room of One’s Own. She writes:

IMG_2336“But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction–what has that got to do with a room of one’s own?…a woman must have money and a room of her own is she is to write fiction…”

Saving the subject of money for another day, what she was saying is that a woman needs freedom in order to write.

In these essays, Woolf also describes the relationship of fiction to life:

“…fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.”

Straight ahead where Tuesday night I spotted a 10-point buck

what's in front of me

To my right into the woods

To my right into the woods

The second thing I’ve felt the absence of in these posts is the subject of what’s in front of us as we write. Some people don’t want any view, but last summer when I was staying in a hotel in Traveler’s Rest, South Carolina, and all I had to look at was a wall, I felt claustrophobic. I shoved my computer in my purse and headed for a view. If I could pick any, it would be the ocean. It doesn’t really make any sense.

If I’m writing, I’m looking at my screen. I can’t explain it other than to say, if I have a choice in the matter, I prefer the feeling of limitless possibility and of things opening up in front of me.

When you’re writing, does it matter if you have a view?

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the writer’s desk

IMG_2325

Eudora Welty's desk on the cover

In a comment to yesterday’s post, a reader reminded me of Jill Krementz’ photographs in The Writer’s Desk, which was published in 1996, the same year as Infinite Jest, and is now out of print. I had forgotten all about this book.

I pulled it off the shelf, and I’ve been enjoying the photographs all over again–of Toni Morrison, Russell Banks, John Irving, and Susan Sontag. Russell Banks writes:

“The computer is the most liberating because it is the fastest: I can sneak up on myself and write things that I would never dare to say or write if I had to write it out longhand…”

John Updike writes the introduction. There are three photographs of him: a corner of his messy desk, at work with a pencil in his hand, and standing up over a computer. He writes:

“I look at these photographs with a prurient interest, the way that I might look at the beds of notorious courtesans. Except that the beds would tell me far less than  these desks do….at these desks characters are spawned, plots are spun, imaginative distances are spanned.”

Stuck inside my book was an article from Poets & Writers, “The Importance of Place: Where Writers Write and Why,” from the March/April 2008 issue. Alexandra Enders writes:

“Writers need to find a way to access creativity and that can begin with the physical spaces they occupy when they work. (Paradoxically, when the writer is writing well, is truly immersed in the project, the space dissolves and becomes irrelevant.)”

IMG_2329

Susan Sontag's desk

I do find that having a “room of my own” where I’m surrounded by books helps me during the creative phases of my writing. When it comes to revision, though, especially late in the process when I’ve worked on the same words many times, a new place–the quiet of a library or the noise of a coffee shop–will often give me the new perspective I need.

When I don’t have a room of my own, I’ve found that little rituals can serve the same purpose–a cup of coffee in a special mug, the lighting of a candle, turning a chair to face a different direction, a deep breath.

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my writing room

The Guardian has for some time been doing a series on writers’ rooms.  The most recent piece featured Michael Morpurgo:

“For many years, I wrote on our bed in the house. But there were complaints about ink on the sheets, dirty feet on the bed…”

I discovered the series by way of Joanna Penn’s blog, The Creative Penn. She showed a picture of her writing room and listed her writing tools.

IMG_2283

Here's where I sit--looking in. My desk is under there somewhere.

I thought maybe we could create a chain of these posts. If you continue the chain, please leave a link in the comments so we can follow to your writing space.

IMG_2285

Here's where I sit--looking out. Now you can actually see my desk.

My writing tools:

  • a candle
  • my sony vaio laptop that will fit in my purse
  • my printer
  • my digital camera
  • pens and pencils
  • index cards
  • notes everywhere
  • books
  • sparkling water with lime

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when I’m not being a mother

IMG_2001My husband and son just left the house to take his mother (my son’s grandmother) to church and to lunch. I declined. It is, after all, Mother’s Day. As the mother, I should get to choose what I want to do. And I still choose what I began choosing that first mother’s day–time to myself.

Over the years, my children have criticized my choice. My husband jokingly blows it up as “we’re leaving-that’s what she wants.” Even with three children no longer living full-time at home, I still never seem to have enough time for me.

We, as mothers, should tell that truth.

IMG_1994In a little while, I’ll make another cup of tea and move from my desk to my chair with a stack of lovely books…Mothers, an anthology of stories about mothers, I‘ve Always Meant to Tell You–Letters to Our Mothers by Contemporary Women WritersIMG_2000, Don’t Cry (the book I’m reading now), the New York Times.

Later I’ll call my mother…

My family knows now how I like to spend this day. My husband could not be any nicer–supporting me in my choice, taking care of any obligations that arise and offering to fix me whatever I’d like for breakfast and dinner, wonderful cards. My children not at home all called, which I loved. I look forward to this day every year.

I certainly can forsee some time in the future when I have no children living at home and I never see them that I would choose to spend Mother’s Day with them if that were a choice. But for now, I’m in my study, my tea on my coaster, a bergamot candle scenting the air, the tree branches blowing in the wind, remembering who I am when I’m not being a mother.

letting go of consciousness

More from John Steinbeck

img_1270

March 6, 1951, Tuesday.  “No sleep last night but I feel fine.  And I don’t even know why I didn’t sleep.  I was perfectly comfortable.  Just couldn’t let go of consciousness.  Funny thing.” 

Journal of a Novel:  The East of Eden Letters

I couldn’t sleep last night, and I don’t know why either.  I too was perfectly comfortable.  But I felt like my fingers were clawing the ceiling and refusing to let go, despite my brain saying, don’t think about that now.

Despite his lack of sleep, Steinbeck writes, “Now, once to the toilet and I will go to work.”  Then, “It is so strange what one writes down.”  After a space break,

“And there’s that day’s work done.”

send in the elves

img_1194My desk this morning, instead of being covered with books and manuscript pages, is covered with Christmas lists.  I wanted to make a post.  But it was hard to draw my mind away from the unanswered questions and undone errands on my list–with the clock ticking.  Six days, six days, six…

I wondered how other writers managed to focus at this time of the year.  So I reached for May Sarton‘s Journal of a Solitude, written from September to September, from 1970 to 1971, I think.  And guess what?  As far as December, there’s an entry for the 2nd and then nothing until January. 

It’s like falling into a black hole.  In December, most of all, it’s a struggle to claw through the must-do’s, the should-do’s, and the do-nows to find something real.  In December, it definitely takes both hands to catch a day.  So I’m going to aim for a minute here and there.  Maybe an hour.  I’m not going to give in.  I’m going to take a deep breath.  Read a few words.  Write a sentence. 

In her January 2nd entry, May Sarton writes, “I can understand people simply fleeing the mountainoimg_1190us effort Christmas has become even for those, like me, without children.  Everyone must feel revolt as I do about the middle of December when I am buried under the necessity of finding presents, the immense effort of wrapping and sending, and the never-ended guilt about unsent cards…”

In an attempt at a real thought for today, I leave you with this.  In her last entry in the book, she suggests that writing is a “messenger of growth,” that from where we are, “we  write toward what we will become…”