I keep many emails in my inbox. I don’t always archive, delete, or (if I’m honest) even read all the messages that arrive there. What’s weird is how often the precise number of messages in my inbox is 318. Maybe I am trying to recreate that place in any way I can, even through my electronic inertia and disarray.
Cleaning a corner of my office…going through a box of stuff from when I taught a 9th grade creative writing class. In the box, I found a stack of half-pages detailing an extra credit assignment I offered the students at the end of 2019. Though I rarely read my own work to the class, in this case I had shared my story “Curb Day” which is about dragging items out of your house and life. Finding this assignment now (as I drag to the curb what I no longer need from that job) seems very resonant! Use it if you want to.
DRAG IT TO THE CURB!
- Number from 1 to 10.
- Pretend there was a day when the trash collectors would take ANYTHING…start with the phrase, “I would drag to the curb…”
- List 10 things you would drag to the curb.
- Find an item that seems like it wants your attention and circle it.
- 5 minutes: Describe the item in detail. Pure description.
- Let the dragged item become part of a brief narrative/story.
- You can be the narrator/main character, or you can assign someone else to deal with the item.
- You can write in 1st (“I dragged…”) or 3rd person (“they/she/he dragged…”).
- You can fictionalize as much as you want to.
You can even change your mind about dragging it to the curb, and drag it back into your life!
Happy new year! May 2021 be gentle and kind to you, as it wipes the mess of 2020 from its shoes.
Reading my novel-in-progress, I found this bit, and I like it so thought I’d share. Completely torn from context but so what.
“In the silence, there are actually heaps to hear. Train your ears. Slow your breath until you glean what’s left. What’s been missing. The exhalation. Feel your shoulders drop. Everything you’ve been ignoring during The Disaster hasn’t disappeared. Even if it’s in the river and snagged on a rock, been taken captive, or submerged in mud, it’s still there, still out there somewhere. Maybe sleeping, maybe waiting. Maybe it’s only the bones. Maybe the next thing that happens is: whatever’s waiting wakes up.”
It’s fascinating to read through the pages of a novel I began writing in 2004 (that’s not a typo)…fascinating seeing how the “now” me filters through and makes sense of it…very strange. Like when Owl meets himself on the stairs in Arnold Lobel’s excellent book, Owl At Home. (“There must be a way,” said Owl, “to be upstairs and to be downstairs at the same time.”) I hope my next novel will take a shorter span of years, which may yield a psychically simpler writing process, I think? But this bit is new-er and informed by my fascination with embodiment, trauma, resilience, holding many things at once…etc.
(STAY TUNED because I will have some good news to share in the not too too distant future…)
What works best, as a way in? The idea, or the image?
The problem with THINKING (about IDEAS) in your HEAD.
(This is adapted from a presentation I gave at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop in March of 2018.)
How many times have you heard others (or yourself) say or think, “I can’t think of anything to write!” Lynda Barry talks about why thinking isn’t the way to get anywhere. Moving away from having to think of an IDEA to write about, toward accessing what she calls the IMAGE WORLD. She makes a distinction between the top of the brain and the back of the mind (where the images live). (If you don’t know about Lynda Barry, look her up! The book SYLLABUS is a great resource, as are her TED talks and YouTube exercise videos.)
In a college class I was teaching in 2018, I noticed how this tension works itself out when I used a prompt from Nick Bantock’s THE TRICKSTER’S HAT and asked students to write a list of “unusual” things that have happened to them. I saw them engage in the act of not-writing: they got caught on thinking WHAT IS UNUSUAL? And that question (and the judgment built into the tag of “unusual”) engaged a less-helpful part of their brains. It led me to gather more evidence about what I have experienced: THINKING is kind of a problem, actually, when we’re trying to start from scratch, and come up with the stuff to write about. At least it’s a problem for me. Put another way—THINKING (in that way) doesn’t help start or sustain the flow state I want and need when I am writing.
Another example: In 2016 when I was WRITING THE UNTHINKABLE with Lynda Barry at the Omega Institute, the rule was that we were to draw our daily self-portraits (2 minute index card drawing of ourselves in various scenarios) and introduce our portraits to our neighbors (let the index card self portraits meet each other). On Thursday, Lynda asked us to draw ourselves dancing. We did so. I held my card up to the card of the person next to me, and she said something like “oh, I love how you…” (whatever she said escapes me now) and I FELT THE OXYGEN LEAVE THE ROOM. Just because this well-intentioned human next to me made specific comments about what I drew! I always think about that when I teach, and when I write.
The thing seems to be how to keep the most possible oxygen in the room, in the practice, to sustain the process of creation.
When we’re going to write, we have to move from stagnation and stillness—from the cold state of not-writing. What often stops me is the inner critic. I think the inner critic is connected to that thinking part of the brain.
We have to get moving. We have to start by NOT getting stopped.
( Of necessity, This blog post was drafted with the assistance of Google docs voice typing. Please excuse Associated errors.)
January 12-29, 2020
On Monday evening, January 6th, I tripped and fell backward and tried to catch myself with my right hand, but broke my wrist. Dominant hand. Parentheses people keep asking about that. Which hand? end parentheses.
in the middle of that first night, I was awake a lot, worrying, wondering when I would ever be able to use my right hand to do everyday things, like the morning pages. since 1993, pretty much every day except some weeks following the birth of my child in 2007, I have handwritten 3 Pages first thing in the morning. the morning Pages have been a way of keeping in touch with myself, keeping myself sane. That Monday night, my lower arm and wrist in a splint, unable to sleep because of the discomfort and the shock, I worried about when I would ever be able to use my hand again with such fluency. I knew that I could dictate text and email messages into my phone. but this would not suffice for my planned January writing project.
My intention had been to spend this month putting together many messy, complicated, and disparate files on my computer to submit a manuscript in progress to The graywolf Press non-fiction prize contest. I had planned 2 submit my work last year, but this Contest is only open every other year. in the dark on that Monday night, I despaired, realizing I couldn’t imagine the way to do this as I planned.
The contest is very competitive, and is a huge long shot, and I knew that, but it seemed like an important thing to do anyway. there’s no reason to disqualify yourself by not trying.
it’s Sunday, January 20, now, and I have let go of gray wolf for this year. But I’m learning other ways to do the physical act of writing, even if it’s not quote unquote anything beyond process. In other words, even if it’s not something I will publish some day Beyond my blog.
I got my notebook out, realized quickly that my fountain pen wouldn’t work in my left hand, got a black Flair pen. wrote down the date. Stated the facts about my right wrist, in very scrawly, funny lettering. everyday I have written with my left hand in that notebook, and it’s interesting what I’m learning.
I also got on the internet and discovered that Google Docs has a voice typing feature which I am using to draft this right now. It’s been very helpful to use that feature for emailing on my laptop as well. So I’m not just limited to my phone. hooray for Adaptive technology. and here I want to acknowledge that I am a baby in this land, and many people have been dependent on this technology for their lives, sanity, and livelihood. at any rate, I am very grateful that I can speak words and have them typed in front of me, even with typos and mistakes, some of which are very amusing, sometimes hilarious. sometimes I have to slow down and speak again. To avoid typos, I have to push the words carefully out of my body, and even then, you see what you get.
As a writer who has always been very careful about correcting typos Etc and very hard on myself, with high standards about what my words look like when I share them with others, this is a humbling time. I am letting myself go. I am not sweating typos errors Etc. (I am learning that it is okay 2 eschew perfection. I had to type the word eschew, for instance, because the machine was not getting it right.) I’m just getting the words out. But when I dictate words that are typed on the screen as I am doing right now, I can only go in One Direction, my brain can only move step by step, word by word, mindfully, and it feels very limiting. I must speak my punctuation. Of necessity, I am learning about slowness.
Similarly, when I write with my left hand on paper, I find that my right hand sometimes does what seems like a sort of lip syncing: my right hand sort of mimics my left hand, or tries to. Very interesting. I would love to see a functional scan of my brain during this process. But in the same way as when I speak words that then get typed on the screen, when I write with my left hand, I can only move forward, only move in One Direction. My brain has to slow down. so that I can get the letters shaped, even messily or with errors, onto the page or screen.
I have taken for granted my way of writing until now. That I can write things in the margins, that I can zoom around in my head, have three or four things happening, or way more than three or four, in my brain while I’m also writing has been a luxury. I know that handwriting even with my dominant right hand makes me focus in a way that is linear, that is one step at a time, but this is very different. I’m not even sure how to describe it. All I can do for now is pay attention, try to learn something from this painful experience.
As I form scrawled shapes with my black Flair pen on paper, sometimes I skip a line, sometimes I have to slow down and print Or reprint words, sometimes writing cursive is easier, and in almost every way, I feel like a monkey. nothing against monkeys. Just that I’m Not thinking in the way I am accustomed to thinking, but only doing what a body does. As well, I have been thinking about the Lynda Barry Workshop that I attended at Omega Institute. Lynda Barry talked about how when your brain starts to speed up while you’re writing, try slowing your hands down. I tell my students this sometimes. slow down. I tell them to not Worry about catching the words, but slow down and focus on the shapes that your pen makes across the paper.
(this is funny to me: as I speak the word p e n, repeatedly, Google Docs voice typing will only type the word pain.)
following Lynda Barry’s advice, in the past I would slow down on purpose sometimes when writing with my right hand. It was somehow reassuring and felt good. Right now, with Only my left hand, I have no choice. I can only do one thing at a time. my previous self was Adept at mental multitasking, and now, that Way of being–That fast fast rabbit! somehow Always hustling, always trying to get it all done!– is no longer available to me. now I have to find a new way 2 think, teach, communicate, and be in the world. Now I have to slow down or else Everything will be completely illegible.
And maybe legibility is a questionable pursuit. Maybe legibility isn’t even the point. Like when my daughter was first learning to form letters from shapes. Maybe right now the thing is just the physical attempt, getting words out of body.
I imagine, or hope, that my brain is making new associations, new wirings. that this accident will somehow change me in a way that makes me wiser. this does not mean I think everything happens for a reason. I do know that Since January 6th, as I navigate the physical world, I think about ableism, ableism in myself and others, and about those who struggle with physical tasks for various reasons. It had been an intellectual sense previously, slow down, let the person with mobility issues safely pass, let them have space to pass. let them not be invisible. Rebecca, you are not the only person in the universe. There are others here too.
(Serious word nerds, keep reading. The rest of you, go do something productive or take a nap.)
Final combing through of my novel, in hopes it will emerge between portable covers sooner than later.
Meanwhile, there’s a file on my computer called “overused words checklist.” It includes words I use too frequently, & passive or lazy phrases to comb for, such as “very” or “and then.” I consult this oracle when I’m nearing the end of the process. Search/replace/omit (or keep, if they seem to need to be there).
Selected statistics that impress at least me:
- Just 1 occurrence of the word “tendril.” Because that word is at the top of my list—I used to use is excessively in a previous novel—and it’s apparently my thumbprint.
- “Very”: Pared down from 30 to 6 “very”s, all of them falling within characters’ dialogue, sounding better left there.
- “Thought”: pared down from 48 to 19. And zero “thought about”s. !!
- “Felt”: down from 38 to 8. (And some signify the fabric.)
- “Little”: Oy vey! From 64 down to 41. (In case you ever read this novel: I’m sorry. I did what I could do.)
- “Seem” (and its variants): 54, down to 14! Some of which are parts of other words.
- “Sigh”/ed: Bonus points for only having 8 occurrences to start with! Hell, I could leave them all in there. But why not pare down. Except I had to add 2 more. Still, 10 of 79,000 words is not that bad. (She sighed.)
Whenever I’m staring at something like this mess, there’s an urge to whine (and brag?). Both.
The writing process. The glamour.
Ninety more pages like this, single-spaced.
The tired eyes.
This page isn’t even the worst of it!
But I know if I just take the time, nip and tuck, and keep moving onward, the novel will emerge stronger for it.
Revising rough paragraphs from the house memoir…realized it was actually a handful of deflated, sad sentences wanting to be a poem so I wrote them into a poem. And right now, I’m in love with the poem.
…revision’s cool heart, still to come, and time, will tell. (But for now it’s fun to fall in love with this unplanned poem.)
Monday, December 3, 2018 (6:30PM – 7:30PM)
Large Meeting Room
Do you have a novel or short story in the works? Learn how to revise and edit your work of fiction in preparation for publication.
Click HERE to register!