Learning to Discern

ArtMark - office floor 1

I have always been curious, always loved learning new things. Was able to read from a very early age, and in high school and college inevitably opted to do a research paper over a final exam when the choice presented itself.

It took me five years to get my undergraduate degree, for goodness’ sake! I discovered when I examined my transcript at the end of my junior year that my credit hours were evenly split between four departments (as I recall, English was one in this grouping, no surprise). “Your problem – and it’s not really a problem – is that you have too many interests.” This, from my college advisor and mentor. He was right, and I ended up graduating with some enormous number of credit hours; a major (Art) and a double minor (Psychology and Social Science).

What happened to English, you may be asking? An unfortunate experience with one of my professors who (falsely) accused me of plagiarism, turned me away from that path (he has since passed away and it’s of no use to speak ill of the dead so I will let it lie) – but in truth I turned away, no one made me. It is almost laughable now, to think I could be so swayed by one person’s action or opinion. I often wonder how my personal movie would have played out had I put English at the top of the academic roster. Not a regret, but a definite curiosity, as I learn many years later about things like story arc, etc., that are probably the bread and butter of English majors, certainly of MFA students. (My beloved mentor at the time said that with an MFA and a quarter you could get a cup of coffee – tells you how long ago this was – so I opted to not pursue an advanced degree. What would have happened if I had?)

I am a bright-shiny-thing magpie when it comes to information and books.

I am a big fan of webinars, seminars, podcasts, workshops, classes, downloadable PDFs. My capacity is nearly endless, to the point of near-overwhelm. A free webinar? Sign me up! Generative writing workshops? Love them.  In my most recent attempts at decluttering, I took myself seriously to task over the accumulated paper file folders stuffed with information and things I was sure I want to keep for reference and referral. My inbox and computer files are abundant with articles, ebooks, interviews, essays, blog posts about one thing or another, much of it about writing. Or much of it good writing that I want to read.

I am an information hoarder. There, I’ve said it. And I can justify it any number of ways, especially being a writer; like I used to be able to justify pack-ratting all sorts of odds and ends and ephemera when I was actively doing collage. But seriously, it is past time for me to learn and apply the gentle art of discernment a bit more.

I have been writing one thing or another since I first could take a pencil and ride the waves of those cursive loops on those cardboard strip running along the upper edge of the blackboard in  every elementary school class of my childhood. And before I could write? I dictated stories to a willing parent, who dutifully transcribed it onto a piece of newsprint that had been stapled into pages, which I would then illustrate. I claim that now as my first foray into the world of self-publishing. So precocious.

In 2008, after having had a story about a local youth farming project published in a local magazine, I caught the bug to turn my attention again in a more directed way toward writing. What followed was a series of workshops and classes – both in person and online – that generated a cornucopia of snippets and bits for larger pieces, and put me more determinedly on the path of being a writer. It all started with a food-themed series with Cultivate Clarity (originally Ibex Studios), out of which spawned a monthly writing group that has morphed and changed members, self-published an anthology and still amazingly continues to meet monthly in a smaller, more focused version of itself nine years later. I have explored and added more workshops of all sorts, both in person and online. Two (so far) ten-day, 1000 words/day “boot camps” and some private coaching from creative firebrand (and I mean that in the best possible way) Max Regan;  an intense weekend of writing with Ariel Gore; two out-of-town multi-day intensives – one with Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, and one with Jeffrey Davis; most recently an ongoing series of poetry workshops with my good friend Claudia Savage. IMG_2906

It is a trajectory that has barely slowed, once it started in earnest; though there have been no extended out-of-town workshops this year, but I have made up for it with multiple (and sometimes simultaneous) online and local ones. And now I am enmeshed in an accumulation of generated rough draft bits and pieces that could keep me busy for years, questions and “assignments” barely completed or not-yet approached. And still, I am thinking about future out of town forays – including the Amherst Writers and Artists (AWA) workshop facilitator training – and some personal retreats.

Magpie, like I said.

I am in need of some serious discernment.

And yet, I have absolutely no regrets about how I have done all this so far. Quite the contrary: I have not only stepped out of my comfort zone, I kicked down a lot of the walls along the way. But kicking down the walls has meant I had almost no boundaries, no door I could close when I’d had enough for awhile. It was a classic pendulum swing. So now I need to discern what I do and do not need for this next chapter (writing pun intended). I don’t need more. I need more focused. I need to slow down and stay with a story, a poem, the book, and delve more into the gristle and meat of it. Even the scary heart of it. But I long for that now. It’s time for that now. Hence, the personal retreats. I am finding a certain lack of time to circle around and settle into that flow (an adolescent puppy is a lot like a human toddler, and my appreciation for those moms who are also trying to maintain a creative life has once again grown ten-fold. I bow deeply to you). I am astounded, week after week, what can be gleaned from an uninterrupted two-hour poetry class, with eye- opening, mind-opening, heart-opening inspiration and prompts, what juicy and evocative bits and launching-off points can be discovered. What if I could bring that presence to my desk every day? I am on the threshold of 150 days into #continuouspractice – which astounds me no end – but it is time to make even that more mindful, more specific, more directed.

I have thrown down the gauntlet for myself. Pretty exciting stuff, because it’s time. If I have learned anything, it’s that timing is everything.

I have started learning more about the characters in my book. I like them. And the more I know, the deeper the story becomes. I like that too. So stay tuned. More will come. And for those of you who are wrestling with creative projects of one sort or another, stay with it – it is the most important work you can do.

But I think discernment is the key.

100 Days of Discovering Continuous Practice (and counting)

IMG_5364 A few months ago I accepted Saundra Goldman’s invitation to join her #continuouspractice project. It is a group whose members strive to post a photo each day that reflects a dedicated ongoing practice; for most it is about writing, but there are also photographers and a runner, and still others who simply make a point to be present to the world around them and document that practice with a photo. We are a supportive community of like-minded strangers; we come together on the pages of Facebook from all over the globe, aligned in the determination to mindfully establish a disciple of regular attention to our chosen activity.

Do some of us miss the occasional day? Do I? Oh hell yes. But this is not another rigid taskmaster exercise that becomes an easy set-up for failure and self-recrimination – every day is a new day. There is something, however, about the intention of posting a daily photo of one’s work that lends itself to a certain accountability. Not a bad thing.

I have missed the occasional day, but less often than I would have thought. You see, the momentum and practice of showing up every day becomes sort of self-perpetuating. I miss writing if a day goes by without it. Sitting down to the desk with pen and paper or keyboard has become a sort of coming home, one that deeply satisfies (even as I sometimes wrestle mightily with the muses of fiction and poetry, not to mention my own internal critics). And that is the point really. The showing up, come hell or high water. A sink of dirty dishes, lack of sleep, requests from family and friends, to be given their due, but not given all. It doesn’t have to be a lot. Twenty minutes is the suggested minimum, but truly, even ten minutes a day, every day – and like the birds who somehow know the feeder is full of seed, the muses will come by and pay a visit. It is a creative anchor upon which we can hinge our days. It is no small thing, even though perhaps a small amount of time. It is a stand for our own creative worth.

Some days I write a little, some days a lot. Sometimes it is a letter to a friend (yes, I do write letters, on paper and in envelopes with stamps), journal entries to myself, work for a freelance client, work on my own creative projects. Or some combination of these. It just has to be something. 

Earlier this month I  up-ed the ante and took part in Max Regan’s online “Boot Camp” (actually for the second time). Daily prompts, lessons and encouragement; writing 1000 words/day. For ten days. Put my head up after that marathon and lo and behold, I had cranked out 10,000 words! All rougher-than-rough draft, the point is to establish the practice of showing up. Every day. It’s frankly exhilarating. Some of it is well worth keeping, some of it’s pretty much drivel, but a lot is in between, and has potential.  But again, the point is the Practice. In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott has a lot to say about the reality, if not the value, of shitty first drafts. I still struggle with scheduling time to write. I still find ways to procrastinate, derail myself. It’s why they call it Practice. But. With very few days missed, today I posted the photo for Day 134 in #continuouspractice. That is something.

Oh, and the photo above includes a bowl of some sort of salad creation of the day. Not 134 days of cooking necessarily, but creating dishes with an assortment of ingredients on a regular basis satisfies me in similar ways to creating bodies of written work with an assortment of words.

Creativity taking several paths, in my life.

(no accident that the protagonist in the ongoing book project loves to cook, and that the entire story is interwoven through a multi-course meal that she is asked to create. Curious? Stay tuned.)

It’s Not About Me, After All

Work in progress

Work in progress

Last week I was thrilled to have a story accepted to the Communal Table online quarterly (http://communaltable.com/cast-iron-memories/). It was especially poignant because it is a memory of my late mother, via the cast iron dutch oven I inherited, and the story landed on the website right before Mother’s Day. Also, Communal Table is an adventurous and exciting new venture. Working without advertisers, they crowd fund each issue in order to pay their writers and artists (and for those of you like me who are generally offered little more than thanks and a couple copies of the journal, this is huge) offering lots of tasty rewards in their kickstarter campaigns, including selling seats at the table for a meal that is themed around the current issue. The embodiment of the communal table ethos that is the heart and soul of the website! So awesome. It’s a site well-worth visiting. (No, not just because I’m in it.)

In the same week I received some effusive praise and appreciation for a (freelance writing) profile from the person I interviewed. I consider it high praise, as I especially like the writing on her website. And it is important to me to be able to get someone else’s story “right.” To tell it truly.

This is not to over-boast, by any means – these accomplishments are flanked by an ever-growing stack of rejections. Some writers I know squirm at the idea of submitting their work, fearing the rejections. Others throw themselves into the fray at an astonishing pace, regularly sending work out in multiples every week. I fall somewhere between these two extremes. I am by no means up to the full throttle of producing and submitting that I hope to be, eventually. Because my feeling is that writers write, and writers submit. Lots of both.

I have sent out work that I personally am in love with. I have sent out pieces that I was pretty sure could use more work, but I did it anyway because: 1)The submission deadline loomed and I was disciplining myself to not wait for “perfect” before submitting. 2) To test the water, see if the particular piece could actually stand on its own and maybe I was just being too much of a perfectionist. 3)To just keep doing the work – in the same way as putting my butt in the chair every day (or nearly so) to write – in the continuous stream of working there is a rhythm and a flow where the process is what’s important, where the results naturally evolve over time.

A few pieces have been published, more have been rejected (in some cases multiple times). Does it make me doubt my own view of my abilities as a writer? Depends on the day and the prevailing mood, honestly. But less so, these days.

There will always be those luminous bits of writing that I know deep in my bones are good, and the thrill of having work accepted and published is truly that – a thrill. But in the greater stream they flow and intertwine with the pieces that don’t quite ever sing, with the rejections, into that richly textured fabric that is The Writing Life.

The thing is, the more I submit, the more I keep the flow of work moving out there in the world, the less attached I am to the outcome. Am I disappointed by rejection? Of course. Does it make me want to stop writing, or submitting my work? Hell no. Quite the contrary, I’m discovering. 

“There is a huge amount of freedom that comes to you when you take nothing personally.” – Don Miguel Ruiz

Oh seriously, you’re saying about now. How are you going to feel after nothing but rejections for a year? For three years? I hope that doesn’t happen, but if it does I’ll let you know then how I feel. Maybe it’s why I don’t just work on the novel. No eggs all in one basket. Short stories, flash fiction, non-fiction. Maybe even poetry, one of these days. Lots more opportunities. Many more venues for submitting. We can choke on excessive preciousness over our work, but it’s especially vulnerable to that when the pieces are singular, rather than multiple. 

What? You think I don’t care what people think? Oh no, I’m not there yet, by any means! I want people to like me, and especially to love my writing. But if they don’t, well, it was just their response to what they read, so carry on. (There are probably more subjective variables in this submitting/publishing process than I have teeth.)  But it’s important to not just glower, but to look back at the piece and see if it really could be improved. Sometimes my conclusion is well, no, I still think it’s good as it stands. Other times, feedback has given me some good insights. I have received some of the most wonderful, helpful critique from people who didn’t accept my submission. What I call the Lovely Rejections. I am very grateful to these folks, for this roller coaster is just a learning curve in disguise.

Maybe I now have the gift of perspective that comes with age: I turned sixty earlier this month, and at some point, other people’s opinions are simply that. Having less and less to do with me. Nothing like hearing more clearly the ticking of the Eternal Clock to make one decide that some of the nattering that goes on does not need my attention or my energy.

So yes, I have indulgently basked in the recent accolades, without an ounce of apology. But this too, is just one reader’s opinion and reaction to my writing. It’s the one I want, certainly, the one I hope for. But what it really means is that I got the right connection between my work and the reader.

Of course, I’d still like to think the writing is damn good, too.

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I read two different posts by fellow writers today that are so fabulous about this mercurial process of writing, submitting, aspiring:

Brenna Layne writes about that misunderstood (but important) notion of Ambition.

And Marisa Glaser Goudy considers the quality of being Devoted to your story.