Living the Astonishing Writer’s Life (A Love Letter)

As you read this, I’ll be finishing up a five-day stay in Louisville, Kentucky, after a conference/celebration at Spalding University, where I got my MFA.  The celebration part was to honor Sena Jeter Naslund, the founder and long-time director of the MFA program, who is retiring.

Sena is the author of many wonderful novels, including my favorite, Ahab’s Wife, and is also an amazing teacher and inspiring speaker.  One of the things she says is, “writers get everything everyone else does—plus the pleasures of a writing life.”

That quote encompasses everything about the life of a writer and why it is the best life imaginable.  We get everything everyone else does—and more.  And, conversely, everything in our non-writing world (that part everybody else gets) impacts our writing world.  It’s sort of like the double helix of the DNA strand—our writing and civilian lives combine and recombine, constantly fertilizing and enriching the other.

A walk on a beautiful fall day inspires description for a novel. A snippet of overheard dialogue makes its way into a scene.  Reading a book deepens your understanding of your main character.  And you also get to enjoy those things as aspects of living life.  A beautiful fall day, some interesting eavesdropping, the pleasures of sinking into the world of a book.

“You were made and set here to give voice to this, your astonishment,” says Annie Dillard.  “Instructions for living a life: pay attention, be astonished, tell about it,” says Mary Oliver.  We writers are the lucky ones because we get to not only be astonished, but then tell about it.   We get to live twice, as Natalie Goldberg points out.

And that, my friends, is astonishing, no?

I do often wonder how non-writers make it through. I can’t imagine living without a writing practice, be it journaling, writing this newsletter, or crafting novels, in which to process my thoughts and figure things out.  How do people live without a container in which to place their astonishment at the world?

Aren’t you glad you’re a writer? Leave a comment and tell me the best part about being one.

 

 

On Fitting it All (Including Writing) In, A Love Letter

Meditation. Love it or swear you’re going to scream if you hear someone say the word one more time, right?

I had a great meditation practice established for a long time.  Fifteen or twenty minutes every day, sometimes even twice a day. I loved meditating. It made me calmer, helped me focus better, and expanded my creativity.  It felt like putting my brain through the laundry.   Never mind that half the time I fell asleep during the rinse cycle. I always came out feeling mentally bright, shiny, and new.

And then I stopped. For a variety of reasons, most of which were subconscious.

For one thing, I went to France for a month. There, I was busy each day teaching, writing, eating lots of fish, and drinking the good, cheap, local wine. There wasn’t a lot of time for meditation.  Because: good, cheap, wine. And lots of good people to drink it with. And, to be honest, I forgot about it.

But there was also walking, and lots of it. Walking into town several times a day, walking to gaze at the nearby Mediterranean, walking to partake of some of that divine wine and food.  And walking was a big deal for me. Because for the last few years, walking, one of the things I’ve loved to do best in the world, has been painful. Sometimes very painful, thanks to mild arthritis in my left knee.

This year, though, I was determined to be able to walk as much as I wanted in France. And so I got a cortisone shot. Went to physical therapy several times a week. Rode a stationary bike to build up my leg muscles. And yes, I walked a ton in Collioure and Paris.  When I came home, I wanted to keep walking.  And so the time designated for exercise every day has become devoted to physical exercise, not mental.

And there went the meditation practice.

Lately, though, I’ve been missing it a lot. I’m working on finding time to fit it back into my life. Along with walking or riding bike.  And eating, and showering, and reading, and answering emails and all the other things that make up my day. And oh yeah, that other thing—writing.

Doing all the things that are good for us to do take time.  I put off having my hair cut or getting a pedicure because those things take time.  Which I’m forever trying to find more of, my main goal in life finding more time to write.  Yes, writing takes time. Lots of it. And it takes devoted time, time when I’m able mentally and emotionally to focus on putting words on the page. Because that is the crux of it, isn’t it?  When I’m trying to make time in my life, it’s because I want time to write.  When I’m doing things that are good for me, it’s because I hope they will enhance the writing.

And yet.

I so seem to have time to read my favorite blogs.  Scan the news sites.  Look at Ravelry for knitting patterns, or Etsy for tools.  I’ve realized, though, that something all these activities have in common is that they are about consuming. The things that really make me happy are about creating. Creating a strong mind, physical health, books to be read, warm shawls to wrap around me on a gloomy, gray afternoon.

And creating takes more energy, whether it is physical or mental, than consuming. But in our culture, consuming has become the predominant activity, fed by the 24-hour news cycle and a voracious online marketing machine. (Which I’ve got nothing against, I do just about all of my shopping online these days.)

I’m pretty sure there aren’t enough hours in the day to do all the things I want to do. But I do know that taking a closer look at the things I’m actually doing—consuming versus creating—makes me much more aware. And hopeful that I can tip the balance most often toward creating.

So, yeah, that’s about all I’ve got for you. No magic answer. I don’t know quite how to fit everything I need to do into my life. But I do know this. Whether it is meditation, or walking, or writing, when I practice it, even a little, I feel better. I’m a big believer in the Kaizen theory of life—that taking tiny, small steps leads to big improvement over time.

And to start taking those small steps, we need to be deliberate in our choices. When I think about it, that’s the key.  Becoming deliberate and mindful in choosing what I want to do at any given moment, as opposed to going into easy, default mode.  Choosing creating over consuming.  And maybe, just maybe, creating enough time in the day to meditate and walk—after I’m done writing, of course.

The Importance of Telling the Story

Tell the story.

A friend calls.  A terrible thing has happened. She’s okay. But this terrible, unthinkable thing happened.  She tells me about it in great detail, going over every detail and then back again, looping around and around.  I listen, giving her the space to say whatever she needs, to repeat the particulars as many times as necessary.

Because I know she needs to tell the story.

Years ago, we had a fire in our home.  My family and animals escaped from the burning house as fire fighters arrived to put it out. We were all okay. Displaced for many months, but okay.  I found myself telling the story over and over again. To people. To my journal. In my head as I walked.

Because I needed to tell the story.

Telling the story is healing, people. I would go so far as to say that it is a necessary part of life.  Which is why you need to tell your story—whether you’re writing non-fiction or fiction. Because, guess what?  Not only is telling the story healing but so is reading it.

When I read a memoir about somebody who overcame great suffering, I’m inspired. It reminds me that the problems I face aren’t such a big deal—and that I can overcome them, too.  When I read a novel with a fierce, fearless heroine I remember that I can be that way, too.

And there’s this: in our current political climate, people are seeking stories with happy endings.  In a story in Salon, bookseller Leah Koch says, “…we have seen more readers turning to romance than ever before, especially those who are new to the genre.” Others interviewed in the story back her up. People are seeking solace and healing in happy tales.

I can get mired in thinking, where’s the good in writing? Others are out there saving the world, being activists, building wells in Africa, researching cures for cancer. And I just sit at my desk all day and make shit up.  But then I am reminded of the power of story. We really can’t live without it.  And that’s what you and I are doing.  Our words allow people to live vicariously, and hopefully heal a little bit, too.

Never forget that. Telling the story is vital.  And that’s your job.

What story are you telling this week? Leave a comment.

This post originally appeared in my weekly newsletter. If you’d like it to come directly to your inbox, sign up on the form to the right. And–I’m gearing up to get back to regular blogging. More original posts soon!

On Regular Practice (A Love Letter Reprise)

(While I’m away teaching in France for the month, I’m running a few favorite letters from last year.  We will be back to regular, new programming the first week in October. Meanwhile, if you want to come to France with me next year, click here for a look at this year’s program.)

I have a busy life. (And I’m betting you do, too.) There’s my writing, client appointments, teaching, reading manuscripts, planning workshops, blogging and writing newsletters. And let’s not forget my gloriously time-consuming family, including four grandchildren under five who I want to spend as much time with as possible with while they still think Nonni is cool.

I love all this, every bit of it, even when I’m fretting about getting everything done.  But a funny thing often happens to me. People ask me what’s new or what’s been going on and I draw a blank. I know I’ve been doing a million things but I can’t get my brain to land on any single one of them. Does this ever happen to you?

I notice that this happens a lot when I’ve been writing regularly.  When people ask me what’s been going on, I start to say, “Well, you know, Bridget just found out that Cade is dating someone young enough to be her child.  And she’s tempted to  leave the small town he brought her to! But she can’t, because she has to stay to see this job through.” And then I remember—that’s not my life, that’s what’s happening in my book.  The one I’m working on every morning.

I’ve finally realized that’s what’s going on in my life—I’m writing.  Day in, day out (with the occasional every Saturday, when I can’t seem to focus, off).  There’s no drama, because I’m busy working.  Nothing to see here. Move along.  I’m practicing.

Practicing, as in sitting down to work at my profession every day and practicing, as in working to improve my work in my profession.  Because when you have a practice, as in something you do regularly, you get better at it.   You just do.  You can’t help but improve when you turn your attention to the same thing over and over again.

I’m happiest when I’m practicing.  And I suspect I’m not the only one.  I used to think that as a creative person, consistency would be boring.  That life needed to be exciting so I had something to write about.  But quite the opposite is true.  Nothing is richer and more fulfilling—and thus more exciting—than having a consistent practice.

I have two consistent practices in my life at the moment: writing and meditation. (I used to be consistent at walking but a pesky knee ailment has sidelined that for the time being.) I feel better when I’m practicing both. (But if I had to choose, I’d go with the writing.) As Mitch, one of my wonderful clients said last weekend, “I start to get edgy if I don’t write for a few days.”

Indeed. Me, too.

Leave a comment and tell me what you practice regularly. I’ll do my best to respond promptly, despite being in France!

And please do join the Facebook group! Just request membership here and I’ll approve you!

Also–if you’d prefer to have this love letter come directly into your inbox each week, just fill out the form to the right. You’ll also receive first notice of classes, book releases, and events.

A love letter about having, and deserving, good tools (A love letter)

Recently, I got a new computer, the one I’m writing this newsletter on.  It’s a Macbook Air, and I love it. Working on this computer makes everything easier and smoother and faster.  Working on this computer makes me happy.

My previous computer was two years old; a very inexpensive PC. I liked it well enough. I thought it was just fine. But it wasn’t until my cat threw up on its keyboard that I pondered getting a new one.  (Only the keyboard was damaged, the rest worked fine. So, for a while I carried an external keyboard and mouse around with me.) I went kicking and screaming to a Mac, buying one only because I want to run Vellum, the book formatting software on it, and it is available only for Macs.

And now I’m in love.

The other day I had to check on something on my old computer.  I was stunned at how slow it was, how long it took to connect to the internet, how clunky it felt. (And let me be clear, this is not a rant against PCs, I like them. It was more about my poor, overworked computer.) But as I worked on it, I remembered: this was previously what I struggled with every day.

So why didn’t I get a new computer earlier? Because new computers are expensive. Because I told myself I didn’t need one. Never mind that I use it all day every day. I told myself the one I had was just fine. Never mind that it was slower than trying to get a toddler to do something he doesn’t want to do. Just never mind.

I guess I should thank my cat for vomiting on the keyboard because now I realize how much I was putting up with. Settling for.  And pondering all this has made me think that maybe there’s still a bit of that old residual feeling of, but I’m just a writer. I don’t need anything fancy. For some of us it may even be a reluctance to admit that we are writers.

So many of us have self-doubt about our role as writers. And even though I’ve been a professional writer for years, I still sometimes struggle with this, too. When I read a story about a humanitarian building schools in Africa or a teacher changing the lives of children or an activist accomplishing great things I get deflated.  And start to think that all I’m attempting to do with my so-called life purpose is entertain people.

And then I remember one of my favorite quotes of all time, from Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey:

But take heart, because writing is magic. Even the simplest act of writing is almost supernatural, on the borderline with telepathy. Just think: we can make a few abstract marks on a piece of paper in a certain order and someone a world away and a thousand years from now can know our deepest thoughts. The boundaries of space and time and even the limitations of death can be transcended.

And when I remember it is magic, I feel better about my role as a writer. I hope that you will, too. And also remember that because you are a magician, you deserve the best tools, be they a computer or the special pen you love or that expensive paper that feels so good to write on.

Indulge yourself. You deserve it. You’re creating magic!

Don’t forget to join the Facebook group!

This is a reprint of my weekly love letter, which you can receive directly into your inbox by filling out the form to the right.  No spam, promise! Just weekly letters and announcements about classes and books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Make Like a Bird and Sing (A Love Letter)

I’m betraying my age here (which is fine, I’m old and I own it), but when I was younger there was a common saying that people would twist in funny way.  I’m going to make like a banana and split, you’d say when you were leaving.  Or, make like a busboy and get the fork out of here.  Or, make like a tree and leave.  We said them for all kinds of occasions.

Ah, yes, those were simpler times.

But I thought of those sayings the other morning when I was outside writing early in the morning, listening to the birds greet the day as the sun rose over the houses across the street. And I thought, I need to make like a bird and sing.  (Only in my case, sing is a metaphor for write because, trust me, you don’t want to hear me sing.) Or, make like a flower and bloom.  Or, make like an Oregon grape plant that the husband planted against all objections and take over the garden.

My point being: the birds don’t worry about who, if anybody, is listening, or if they are singing it right. The flowers don’t worry about if they look fat in that color of red, or if they are arranged in a way that will be pleasing to everyone.  And the Oregon grape? Well, I’m pretty sure it has world domination in mind but never mind.

Because, wait for it here:  we need to make like a writer and write.  Because like birds singing, flowers blooming, and Oregon grape dominating, that’s what we do. Writers write. Except when we don’t.  Because we worry. About how it will sound, how it looks, is it right? Will the agent I want to submit to like it, how will my readers react, what will my mother think when she reads that sex scene? Did I spell that word right, is the grammar correct, and how do I punctuate a sentence like that?

It gets worse when you start writing professionally (or aspire to) because all of those concerns can be front and center all the time.  You have to push yourself to write fast, to go back to writing for the joy of it—even if you’ll eventually get paid, too.

Because I wager that none of us got into this writing biz because we wanted to fuss and worry over punctuation and sentence structure.  (Okay, I know there are some of you grammar geeks out there shaking your heads.) We got into it because writing, to us, is singing, blooming, growing so marvelously lushly that there’s no room to walk past us on the deck. Am I right? And it really is easy to forget that.

So, next time you sit down to write, remember the birds. And the flowers. And the Oregon grape. Okay, not the Oregon grape. Remember why you do this…and make like a bird and sing.