A New World, Where Nothing is Impossible

I'm home from Nashville.  I actually got home Monday night, but I went right from being picked up at the airport to see my Mom, and came home exhausted.  Its a long drag across the country.  I know, I know, people fly much longer distances all the time now, but I don't care, it is still a long flight to me.  Despite being exhausted, I awoke at 5 AM, which seems to be my new default time at the moment.  Its actually fun to be up so early, and boy oh boy, does it give me a lot of time to write. 

Yesterday it was great to be awake at 5 AM, because it was a GREAT DAY.  I set up two TV trays in the family room, which is lacking in tables, and placed my laptop on one, and my journal and pen and the remotes (for some odd reason it takes two to operate our TV) on the other.  And then I sat in front of the television all morning–that is, when I wasn't running to the bathroom to grab kleenex because I was crying so much.

Obama and Michelle pulled up at the White House, Michelle with gift in hand, I started crying.  The limousine taking them to the ceremony pulled onto the crowd-lined streets, I was crying.  Hilary was introduced, I cried again.  And so on throughout the day.   It was really an amazing day.

A note about that present Michelle gave Laura Bush: rumor (or NBC) has it that the gift was a journal and pen for Mrs. Bush to begin her memoirs.  Here's what really interests me: it is said that ole Laura did not keep a journal for the entire eight years Georgie was in office.

She did not keep a journal.

Can you even imagine such a thing? Of course you can't because you are a writer and writers process everything through writing.  But so do people who are living through extraordinary times or events, and Laura qualifies there.  I can't understand how she would not have felt even a slight impulse to write something, anything, down.

While we're discussing the inauguration from a writerly point of view, how about that poet?  People on Twitter were making snide comments but honestly? I think the average American (myself included, alas) is just not that familiar with what is good poetry and what is not.   That being said, I liked her.  Her name is Elizabeth Alexander and I thought her poem hit just the right note–balancing the every day concerns that make up the lives of the citizens she addressed with the momentous aspect of the occasion.  Some of the lines I liked:

We encounter each other in words

What if the mightiest word is love?

Love that casts a widening pool of light

Praise-Song for the Day will be published in book form by Graywolf Press and sell for $8.  Oh, and they are printing 100,000 copies of it.  Not too shabby for a poet.

Finally, I leave you with the words of one of the NBC commentators (alas, I didn't catch which one, I don't watch TV often enough to recognize the voices):

"Nothing, now, nothing, is impossible."


Remembering, The Task of a Writer

At the hospital, time flows differently.

It moves slowly during long stretches of waiting for something to happen.  Then, all of a sudden, everything happens at once.  The nurse arrives for a blood pressure check, someone comes in to draw blood, a technician arrives to cart the patient off for a X-ray.

The patient is my 92-year-old mother, and this is our second foray to the ER in two days, for cellulitis, compounded by a fall which resulted in a hairline hip fracture.

The ER, the hospital, and the world of medicine is a foreign environment to me.  We are not a family of doctors or nurses.  For the most part, we tend to be wonderfully healthy.  So this is a new world for me, one I don't always understand.  I try to keep my eyes open and my attention focused so that I can remember.

Remember what the doctor says so that I can tell my family.

Remember the details of the experience in case I want to write them.

Remember because it seems important.  Through remembering, we exist. 

Remembering is the writer's way of staying present.  By noting the details, committing them to memory in my head or on the page, I'm here now.  I'm not worrying about calling a client or whether or not I'll be able to get to Nashville.

Remembering is one of the most important tasks of the writer. 

Remember, because to not remember dishonors our present.  Remember because others–like my mother–cannot.  Remember because it is important to bear witness.  And sometimes bearing witness is all we've got.

It is enough.  It is more than enough.

Update:  After hip surgery and several days in the hospital, we got my Mom into a nursing home this morning.  She'll be there doing short-term rehab for the next couple of weeks.  After that, its anybody's guess….but we're hoping to find her a nice adult foster care placement.

The Power of Observation & More: 5 Reasons to Keep a Journal

Pumpkins 1
Yesterday my daughter had a pumpkin-carving party, complete with home-brewed Nut Brown Ale from her boyfriend and all kinds of delicious pot luck treats.  We carved the jack-o-lanterns in the backyard with leaves falling all around us in the autumn breeze and ladybugs landing on everyone.

I got up this morning and wrote down all the details in my journal.

I write in my journal nearly every day, usually first thing in the morning.  It is actually a bit of a compulsion with me.  Over the years I've filled up dozens, if not hundreds, of journals in all kinds of spirals and composition books and diaries.  They fill crates in various closets, all neatly labeled with the appropriate dates.  I'm not entirely sure why I save them, because lord knows even I can't read my own handwriting.  But something compels me to do so.  And I know that when our house caught on fire and the upstairs burned many years ago, the thing I was most grateful to find unscathed was my journals.  Pumpkins 2

(Brief aside: you know how you always hear people say what they'd save if their house was on fire?  Let me just tell you, when you are fleeing a burning house with children and pets you do not for one minute stop to worry about saving all the family photos or the Grandma's antiques.  All you think about is getting the living creatures out.)

Sometimes I think journal writing is a distraction.  It's a choice I constantly make: write in the journal or work on the novel?  Make notes about what I did last night or get some work done on a ghost-writing project?  When I'm fully engaged in a book project, I tell myself I shouldn't waste time on my journal.  And then I find myself reaching for it and before I know it, I'm writing away.

However, I'm also aware of how valuable journal writing is.  Honestly?  I'm constantly in awe of people who make it through life without one.  I process everything on the page, saving my friends and family hours of drama and myself years of therapy.  But beyond the emotional benefits, there are clear advantages to keeping a journal for writing, too.  To wit:

1.  It gets the crap out.  If all your worries about your day are clogging up your brain, how are you going to write?  Get it out on the page and get rid of it.

2.  It encourages the practice of observation.  There's no better way to start remembering details than writing them down.  The more you write what you've seen and experienced, the better you get at it. And the better you get at writing it in your journal, the better you get at writing on your novel or whatever creative project is dear to your heart.

3.  It is a place to make notes on projects.  Sometimes–often–I start a journal entry by writing about what I did the day before and soon I'm writing a scene for my novel or figuring out how to write an article.  I actually wrote this whole blog post as a journal entry this morning.

4.  Regular attention to a journal can be life altering.  Sounds grandiose, doesn't it?  But it is true.  When you commit to writing in your journal every day, suddenly you start to see patterns in the desires and goals you note.  Hmmm, day after day you write about the creative non-fiction book you want to start.  Is this a clue to what you should be doing?  Or perhaps every day you write about how miserable you are in your job or marriage.  Is it time to make a change?

5.  You can track your writing goals.   Writing down your word count on a long project can be a powerful motivator.  Writing about that project can help you get clear on it, too.  John Steinbeck wrote journals about the writing of his novels. 

Bonus point:  It is a spiritual practice.  People always talk about their spiritual practices, such as prayer, or ritual, or meditation and I always pouted because I wanted a spiritual practice, too.    But I don't seem to have a lot of patience for those kinds of spiritual practices.  One day, however, it hit me–hot damn, I already have a spiritual practice.  It is writing in my journal, which I do as regularly as anyone who meditates or practices yoga.

One last thing.  Michael Masterson has an article on writing journals in his weekly newsletter today.  He looks at it from a manly, business point of view, but I'm a huge fan of Masterson and I like what he has to say about writing a journal.  Read it here.

A Writing Teacher for Vice-Presidential Spouse

Not to be partisan here, since this is not a blog about politics, but I just learned that Jill Biden, the wife of vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden in case you hadn't guessed, teaches writing.  She teaches writing at a community college and she has mad plans to keep a diary about her experiences on the campaign trail:

"I teach writing, so you can beat that I am going to journal this experience every chance I get."

Do we love this?  Huh? Huh?  Yes we do.  I'm just certain that having a woman who is a writing teacher and a journaler near one of the highest offices in the land is a good thing. 

Besides which, she seems like a pretty amazing woman.  She married Joe five years after his wife and baby daughter were killed in a car accident and raised his two surviving sons.  Along the way she had a child or her own, taught at a community college and earned her PhD. 

Read the People magazine interview with the Obamas and the Bidens here.

But I Get To Write About It

Reason Number Gazillion why its great to be a writer: because no matter what happens, you get to write about it.  When your heart is broken and life sucks, at least you get to write about it.  And the worse the things that happen to you, the better story they will make.  What other enterprise offers such a fabulous inverse proportion of bad to good?

In writing about it, you will distill it down and see what the true story is.  From this, you'll be able to make something of the experience.  The solace of this is immeasurable, and I'm not sure how people who don't write exit without it. 

Even if the experience doesn't make it directly into the pages of my journal, odds are good that it will be transmuted into a character in a novel or a story, or somehow filter into a blog post, or even color what I write to a student.  One way or another, writing is alchemy.

The only thing I remember from Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones is the anecdote she tells about a fellow writer about to get mugged on the streets of New York.  "Don't hurt me, I'm a writer!" the friend yelled.   I imagine the writer friend said that because she needed to write about the experience.

I just remembered another thing from the book (Reason Number Gazillion and One to write: it helps you remember things): how Goldberg, or one of her friends always said that writers live twice.  You get this, of course, but I'll explain it anyway.  Writers live twice because we experience the event and then we get to write about it.  Sometimes it is difficult to say which is the more pleasurable.

So, in these precarious times, give thanks that you are a writer.  And, when the check doesn't come in the mail, the man doesn't email, the weight doesn't budge, the words won't flow, the figures don't add up, just remember: at least you get to write about it.

Why Writing is like Drawing

I'm working on becoming a better observer.

Generally, I go about my business, I travel, I write in my journal about my experiences, and those jottings are too often self-absorbed treatises on what I'm feeling.  I like this, I don't like that, I feel so fabulous this morning or life sucks, blah, blah, blah, endless variations on an emotional theme.

But lately I've been writing a bit differently in my journal.  Instead of the endless scribblings that are all about me, I'm into an objective reporting vein–attempting to capture the essence of what its like to hang out in the Pasadena neighborhood where my friend lives, or documenting the unique aura of Ventura Boulevard, where I have appointments.

Its not that I haven't done this in the past, because I have.  But what has happened before is that all of my experiences have gone directly into the alchemical pot of fiction, to come out the other side the same base thing yet somehow different.   My new practice feels much more like a non-fiction, documentary approach.

And it requires careful observation, noting specific details.  It reminds me of my brief career in drawing.  Everyone in my family–all three of my older sisters got the art gene.  (And the thin gene.  Is this fair?  I ask you, where's the fairness here?) One of my sisters even makes her living at it. 

Okay, okay, so I got the writing gene–I'm not complaining.  But I did once go off on a wild hair and decide I would start drawing.  There's something so appealing about taking your journal with you everywhere you go and recording everything you see.   And what I learned from drawing is that you truly, truly learn to look at the world and see it when you are drawing it.

And of course, that is what we do with words, whether they are arranged into fiction or non-fiction.  I'm a wordsmith, not a visual artist, that's all there is to it.  What I'm learning from my new documentary approach is how insight grows out of careful observation and objective reporting.  By observing and seeing you really begin to get the gist of the situation.

The good news is that this kind of documentary writing can then be alchemized into whatever form you like–fiction, creative non-fiction, memoir, poetry.  So I'm finding its an excellent writing practice.  And may I just point out that this is why writing never gets boring?  There's always something new to discover.