Spring is Nature Screaming

This is the oldening. The lightening. The darkening. The leveling and the simultaneous rupturing. Everything is at once in harmony while vibrating with disruptive discordance.

Spring is nature screaming hoarsely into a mosh-pit of fallen stars and unexpected moonbeams.

The landscape explodes with blooms and the warming trend expands the stench of decay that flies just underneath the radar of our fear, surprising us in our sleep with images we can’t erase and that are exquisitely gorgeous and equally terrifying in the way that sex and death smell the same when we’re being honest with ourselves in stark moments of truth.

The thick sick-sweet smell of life haunts me

Grave Digger’s Shovel

Sonoma tree

Give over your tools of anger, there’s no room for them here in the banquet hall of the dead. Give over your strangling ropes and your braided whips of mean discipline, there’s no room for them here in the banquet hall of love. Give over your walls built of soot and silt that crash down on sleeping enemies in suffocating sludge tsunamis. You don’t need any of this artifice to express righteous anger. You don’t need any of this destruction to come right-side up in the morning. Slough off the language of hatred while you  bed deep in the bound hay of summer. Let it go down the devil’s road until it burns without your heart for fuel. Give over to love completely like you’ve got the wings of a thousand doves powering your blood through your arteries and your mind above the highest canopy of trees where you can chase the light and the wind that takes you far away from the gravedigger’s shovel.

My Wild Flowers

Calistoga Road

If ever a wild flower makes me think of you, it’s because you bloom in the most adverse conditions, showering light and color where a carpet of grief has smothered me. It’s because no matter what careless community service butcher has hacked you to the ground you rise again, triumphant, where your pieces were left to rot. You rise, predictably, like an indomitable spirit.  Your seeds germinate in hostile soil after being frozen solid on the surface of winter soil.

If ever a wild flower makes me think of you, it’s because we dress this poor soil together in bright robes and majestic umbels until it shines with dignity, with laughter, and growls with a hunger to reach the moon. It’s because your gift isn’t the greatest pride but the greatest humility through which the most honest love illuminates the darkest paths. It’s because your complex mind is housed in a clean spirit with roots that gather nutrients from nothing.

If ever a wild flower makes me think of you, it’s because there is no flower more valiant, more strong, more beautiful, or more noble than the flower that opens when nothing else is willing, where no other signs of life prosper. It’s because you are luminous and I know how fortunate I am to collide with you in this dusty gutter of weeds.

The Threads Hang down

beligerant smoke sepia 2

Let the threads unravel all the way to Oz

let them knot and choke and cut veins

on their way back to the original spool

like taught ghosts with razor wings and spurs

digging into your dreams like barking dogs

teeth snarling and punctuating the air with grist

be the chaff that blows into invisible dust

be the blood that dries brown on grim sunlit walls

 

Let the threads unravel in damp tangles

let them snake into your sour heart like sugar cubes

melting into a hostile room full of small savage fires

like crystals the dead wear in blazing caskets

hope misshapen with eyes full of soot and ash

be the heart that walks doubt down the plank

be the heart that cuts all the tangled knots free

 

Let the threads hang down, used and frayed

the way you felt when you were turned inside out

by your first crush of bone and muscle out on the field

where you fell hard into the turf and time stopped

with breathless love never whispered through the heat

be the one girl who gets up and walks away with dignity

be the one who knows the prize waits out of frame

 

Let the threads weave voice into uneven weft

without hyperbole of fiber or selvedge edge building up

believe the pattern your nightmares have drawn

like tight hot embers burning through every layer

like your heart is made of a spider’s web

be weightless and open in your search for truth

be everclear in your spirit and clean water in your heart

A Minor Epiphany: Remembering to Let Go

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You can’t play music well if you’ve never played it poorly. I don’t care what parents of prodigies say, no one picks up an instrument for the first time and plays no wrong notes.

I was discussing my writing problems the other day with two writing friends and had a mild epiphany: this writer’s “block”, or whatever it is, is the same thing I experienced for so many years that I actually gave up on writing fiction. I have folders full of notes and starts of novels, middles of novels, bits of novels that never came to life. I couldn’t make them catch fire and growing discouraged I abandoned them and decided I’d just stick with writing creative non-fiction. I gave up my life-long dream of writing novels because I believed I didn’t have it in me to write them.

All those novels were alive, vibrant, important, cool, fun, charged, and insistent INSIDE MY HEAD. But I couldn’t get them out in the same condition. What came out of my head were dead versions of my stories. Stagnant, poorly written, boring, nowhere versions of the living stories inside of me.

I realized that what I’ve been experiencing ever since finishing Winter; Cricket and Grey is the same thing as before when I told my friend Kele that it’s like the conduit between what’s in my head and my pen/laptop is broken. That’s how it felt before.

In 2009, when I finally fixed that conduit and wrote the first draft of “Jane Doe” it felt incredible! I was finally doing the thing I’ve always supposed to have been doing and I knew it because – well – how do you know you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing? It’s hard to quantify or describe that feeling and I imagine it’s not the same or all people.

I just felt right in my own skin and in my own head.

So how did I fix that conduit and how can I fix it again?

In the most simplistic terms it was all about letting go. Letting go of expectation, doubt, expectation, pressure, interference from others, expectations of others, and letting go of control. The first time it happened resulted in chaos and a manuscript that, five years later, is still in a state of chaos. Maybe it always will be. That’s not as important as I used to think it was. That release of control let the stuff in my head come out and live on the page. I had to release it in raw form. I had to let the stories and characters come out imperfect because that’s how I got the power to change them and edit them into something better. They had to get to the page pure before I could make them better.

Humans are messy beings. Their stories are also messy. If we lived life like a well edited story we’d die of constriction. We don’t live our lives like that. That’s how others may see us and our lives, but the reality is that in the moment we are messy with mixed emotions and motivations and our paths are littered with junk our psyches drop like old skin.

After finishing the first Cricket and Grey book I think I set myself up for failure with a return of expectation. Now that I finally finished a novel and actually printed it and people have read it – I rebuilt the expectation that I should be able to sit down and write with control. But the control of writing is an exercise in multiple steps. First you get the crappy draft down, but you let it be colorful and melodramatic if that’s how it comes out, you let it come out live and imperfect, then you begin to shape it and perfect it through edits.

Everyone’s process is different so I can’t actually say this is how it is for all writers. What I’m saying is that this is how it is for ME.

Part of the power of my blog writing, the stuff people tend to comment about, the stuff that makes people think I’m a good writer, is that I let stuff come out unfiltered. Some of my best blog writing is late at night after several beers because my walls are down,  my instinct to control everything I say is gone. It comes out raw and living and definitely dramatic. Sometimes I wake up and hate what I wrote because it’s embarrassingly earnest and as melodramatic as a teen experiencing their first passions in life. I hate that shit. HATE IT. But that’s the same well from which my poetry comes, my best words, my most creative and inspiring writing comes from that same place.

It’s also the same well from which my nightmares are drawn.

You could say that the best and the worst all comes from the same well. My psyche.

I can’t draw on that unless I let my defenses down, let go of control, let the living moving magma out of the mountain.

Part of it is about trust too. Trust that I can take the raw material, the wildly stupid messy narratives, and shape them into something worthy the way they play themselves out in my head. Trust that the first draft is not an indication of the worth of the story but merely the lump of material from which a great story is chiseled or molded or built.

Pick the metaphor that works best for you.

The thing I can’t account for, the thing I miss and want and need is that energy that pulls me back into the process every day. The energy that makes everything else in my life feel less urgent than getting back to the page. That sense of excitement, discovery, and purpose is like a drug, I suppose. I have heard nearly every successful writer say that becoming successful is about showing up to the page even when that excitement is on the wane. I believe this, I do. I believe it because a person, no matter what they’re doing, can’t be UP all the time, can’t be EXCITED all the time, can’t be PASSIONATE all the time.

If a person IS up all the time, excited all the time, and passionate all the time, then they are living a life out of balance. Or they’re on recreational drugs.

Everyone needs times of reflection, of inwardness, of aloneness, of quiet.  I’ve known people who are exquisitely uncomfortable being alone with themselves, with down time, with quiet days, with slow work, and with reflection. I’ve known people who think their relationships with others are over the minute passion quiets down or the sex isn’t as exciting or as frequent.

Everyone needs refueling from time to time. That is a fact. Creativity needs refueling. Love needs refueling. Bodies need refueling.

So I know that part of writing is accepting that it’s not going to be exciting every single time you sit down in front of your page. But a year and a half of feeling the words die on the page? This is the kind of thing that makes a writer quit, that made ME quit before.

I won’t quit this time. I just need to get out of my own way and let this first draft be messy and dramatic, rich and overstuffed with adjectives. I just need to let it come out without trying to control every sentence as it gets to the page where it dies from suffocation.

Time to let the magma out.

What Works For My Writing

I read a post on 80,000 Words called “What Works For My Writing” that I enjoyed a lot because Christine Lee Zilka discusses in loose list form what things get in the way of her writing and what things help it along.  This is the kind of stuff I always want to know about other writers.  I have an infinite curiosity for it.  All writers have their own processes and it’s fascinating to me to know what they are.  Christine’s post about what works for her writing was inspired by a post on “distraction no. 99”  about the same subject.  I just read that post and now I want to write my own.  For any other writer I know –  I would love it if you would do the same so I can know more about the things that work for you.

What Works For My Writing:

Music –

If other people are in the house I listen to music on headphones.  I have always written to music.  There is a soundtrack to every single thing I write but the longer the work the more difficult it is to find the soundtrack.  Music sets the tone in my head and I often find a song that reflects and can sustain this tone and then listen to it obsessively until the piece is done or until my ears hurt with it.  I estimate that most chapters in my novel are 100 – 150 song lengths.  I can’t change the song until I’m done with it.  I don’t pay attention to the music while I write, it doesn’t obtrude, it simply holds me in the proper space.  Change of chapter, change of scene, or change of post almost always requires a new song.  Sometimes I know what kind of mood I need for what I’m going to work on but can’t find the right song.  It once took me three days to find the right song and so I didn’t write for three days.

I once wrote a whole chapter to the Moonlight Sonata and it came out all wrong.  The writing was too quiet and slow but I couldn’t figure out why.  I sat down to re-write it and started off with the same song but it wasn’t right – I found a song with more urgency and anger and the chapter, though not all that changed in content, was completely changed in feeling and it was so much better.

Solitude –

I know it’s a cliche but I write best when no one is home, when no one is around.  I love writing at 5am because most people on the west coast and certainly in my town are asleep.  The world is a lot more quiet when it’s sleeping.  I can hear the churning of the earth and the buzz of collective humans and find it hard to shut out.  I don’t get to be completely alone very often so writing while my whole house and whole town sleep is a good match.  I hate the feeling of writing at 5am if I got there by staying awake all night.  By the time I’ve dragged myself through 3 and 4am I feel like a drug addict coming down from a high and losing my teeth right there on the spot.  I only do that when I feel like all the words will be lost if I don’t stay up.  I hate  being awake between 2am and 4am.  I’ve spent a lot of time in my life up at that hour because of insomnia.  I rarely do it on purpose.  But waking up at 5am to write is awesome when I can manage to do it.

Beverages –

I love that Christine mentioned this too.  Unlike her, I can eat while I write.  I can eat through most things, unfortunately.  Beverages are necessary.  I can’t imagine writing without a drink near my left hand.  It goes like this: wake-up to 11am is coffee or black tea time, 11am to 5pm is water time, 5pm until bed is beer time.  Except that I don’t always get to drink beer so when I’m not drinking alcohol I’m drinking either tonic and lime, water with lemon, ginger ale, tea (herbal or decaf black), lemon Italian soda, or mineral water with a little unsweetened cranberry juice.  I don’t prefer writing between 11am and 5pm and I think this is because I don’t find water very creatively inspiring though I do drink a lot of it.

Facebook –

The majority of the time I wrote Cricket and Grey I used Facebook as a breather.  Giving status updates on word counts and favorite words and bits of the research for the book gave me a chance to breath between stretches of writing.  In many ways it was part of the rhythm.  Friends commenting on those writing statuses gave me all the connection with other humans I needed so that I still felt like I belonged in the world instead of outside of it.  A couple of people responding to Nova’s post mentioned Twitter providing a similar function for them – I was glad to know I wasn’t the only one.

Outlines –

I wrote The Winter Room without one.  I just wrote and wrote and wrote with no plan and thought it was going really well until I got to 108,000 words and suddenly realized that I had no idea where to go from there.  I couldn’t finish it, I couldn’t see in my head where it was supposed to lead and pretty soon I discovered such huge plot problems I had to set it aside.  I’m still trying to figure out how to pick it up again.  When I wrote Cricket and Grey I used a fresh outline for each draft because with each edit I had made so many changes I needed a fresh outline that accounted for them.  The outlines really helped move me along and seeing my chapter plans on paper helped me SEE plot holes.  So I’ve discovered I write best with one.  I find them really hard to write.  But once written they are a great tool for me.

Word Counts –

I know this kills creativity for some authors, freezing them up.  Not me.  I think my philosophy about lists keeps word counts from being oppressive to me.  A list is a way to organize my thoughts and once I write a list I may refer to it to remind myself of my goals but I never use it to measure my personal successes or failures.  I have never been one to scratch everything off of lists.  By the time I get halfway through it either becomes apparent that I’m not going to get anything else done or I simply forget because my day has evolved however it needed to.  No guilt.  A list is a suggestion.  A list is a thought organizer.  A list is not an appropriate measurement of your worth in any way.  This is how I feel about word counts.  To reach my larger writing goals I would figure out how many words I needed to write every weekend or every day to get there.  I figured out the approximate number of words per chapter and sometimes simply told myself that I would finish one chapter per weekend or sometimes when completely charged – per day.  I often met my goals.  It kept my momentum going.  I can get caught up in infinite details and not paint a whole picture.  Word counts kept me moving forward instead of stagnating.  For me it was a positive pressure rather than a negative one.  I knew I could walk away if I had to and I wouldn’t feel I’d failed in any way if I didn’t meet my goal for that day.  I would just start over the next day.  Fresh conscience.  Fresh mind.

Big writing goals –

Much like word counts, I found these very useful for me.  I know that a book is going to ultimately take as long as it’s going to take to be written.  You can’t always control that.  However, deciding how long I wanted to give myself to complete each draft was very helpful in pushing through the tougher weeks.  I suppose it helps that I’m 42 years old and I don’t feel like I have all the time in the world to finish my novels if I want to get published.  I’ve got a fire under my ass and a lot of ground to cover to become the writer I want to be (published AND making a living at it).  So specific goals helped me move steadily.  Again, I didn’t thrash myself for not meeting those goals but I did work better when I set them.

Talking about the novel with people I trust –

discussing issues I’m having with plot or character development with Philip or close friends was necessary for me to get it out of my head where it these things tend to gnaw at me.  Most useful of all was discussing these things with writer friends.  Talking with other writers was incredibly sustaining to me.  Talking with people is often helpful in this way: their opinions often make me more clear about my own, especially when I disagree with them.  As Philip likes to say, I’ll do the opposite of whatever you think I should do.  I admit that hearing other people tell me what I should do gives me this clarity: they don’t know how to write this book and hearing their misbegotten opinions has shed light on how strongly I feel about points I didn’t realize I felt so strongly about.  Opposition flushes out the important things.