The Tumult of Time

 

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Well, the month of June has come and gone without any mention from me, here.

I always swear I am not going to let the days smoosh together unrecognizably, or get caught up in a current of activity that is moving so quickly I am merely carried along, not noticing or marking the unique (and therefore precious) moments along the way. But sometimes it happens anyway.

Summer solstice brought us the longest day; the charcoal grill got uncovered and cleaned and put into action. The weather warmed and the garden has started to grow in earnest. A good portion of my time has been spent there.

So, in truth there have been markers along the way.

The last couple months have been full of the emotional distractions and energy-absorption of canine health issues and crisis that kept our household on edge much of the time. I am familiar with that blur that can happen with the act of caregiving (and the worry and lousy nights’ sleep that accompany it). So I am neither apologizing nor judging — merely noting and now am finally starting to pick up the threads that I had set down a while ago.

My birthday was in there too, somewhere (well-marked by an avalanche of birthday wishes via social media), but that day found me in bed with the flu.

Some years are more celebratory than others.

 

But there is some good news to this story.

I now have renewed energy for the novel-in-progress, thanks to the wise insights, suggestions and genuine enthusiasm from editor and mentor Max Regan. I have started plowing back in, rethinking and reshaping some of the characters, time lines and sequencing. It is an exciting prospect, but I am feeling a little tentative and shy and new about the whole thing, so for now am going to suspend the monthly excerpts here, and focus on the writing itself as I move ever closer to a finished first draft. It hardly seems possible from here!

And short story has been accepted by Spadina Literary Review, to be published online in the fall! So stay tuned.

So okay, it has not been a complete blur, after all.

 

But then at the end of May, Brian Doyle died.

 

Those of us who knew about his cancer diagnosis knew that day would be coming sooner than later, but it was still a shock to the system. One of those shocks that momentarily stop all awareness of the outside world, filling the senses and mind and heart and body with the roaring silence of the Awareness of Absence. Something irrevocable. As certain as it is mysterious. It’s one of those human mortal things that are difficult to explain but as tangible as a metallic taste in the mouth or the hairs rising up on the back of your neck.

A teacher and someone I consider a mentor, Jeffrey Davis, says there are different kinds of mentors: people we encounter live and face-to-face, those we connect with at a distance and online, and those whose writing inspires and informs, our mentors-on-the-page.

Brian Doyle was a prolific writer, compelling storyteller and illuminator of the marvel and grace in life’s smallest moments, but not everyone is able to love his style of writing: He had a deft hand with run-on sentences and had an amazing knack of putting punctuation-less, stream-of-consciousness prose on a page that, if you stopped and thought about it, reflects exactly how the active and curious mind actually thinks. (He told a funny story in an interview once, that after the publication of the novel Mink River his brother sent him a page full of nothing but commas, and an attached note to the effect that he seemed to have lost his supply, so here were some he could use.) For some people this makes for difficult reading. I totally get it. But, if you’re able to settle back and unhinge something in the conscious mind, wade into the stream of his writing and be able to ride its ebb and flow, it can be rich and lush, abundant in the wonders of the world.

I received one of the most gracious and encouraging rejections ever from Brian, in response to a piece I had submitted for consideration to Portland Magazine – the quarterly University of Portland publication of which he was Editor – the turnaround time was next to immediate (which, for any of you who have experience with submitting know this occurrence is on the far side of unlikely and unusual). His explanation was that he respected writers and the courage it took to submit, and he wanted to honor both with a timely response; and besides which, he knew himself well enough to know that if he waited to respond the submission would likely get lost in the vastness of his inbox and he was afraid to lose track and not respond in a timely fashion. I had never felt so respected as a writer.

 Above my desk sits a framed “self-portrait” with the inscription “with laughter and prayers, Brian Doyle.” It was his response when I handed him my notebook open to a blank page to sign; after a wonderful talk about some of his favorite writers and the imperative we should all feel to tell stories (as being the warp and weft and grist of our lives, of where we intersect as human beings), others had thought to bring a copy of one of his books to sign, but I hadn’t had that forethought. So, feeling slightly foolish but sincere, I handed him the blank page to sign. What I received instead, was this: 

Brian Doyle self-portait

It is apparently something he sometimes did – I recently saw one tacked up next to a shelf of his books in a local independent bookstore where he had done a reading in the past – and I was thrilled to have one of my own.

As he was thus autographing my notebook page, I told him of the nephew of a friend of mine who had recently suffered a near-fatal bicycle accident. My friend would sit by his bedside in the hospital while he was still in a coma and read out loud from Mink River, which was one of his favorite books. He later told her he remembered hearing her reading from the book, and how important that was. Brian’s response was to ask for both my friend’s and her nephew’s email address; I don’t know what he wrote but he made a point to write to both of them. That was the kind of person he was.

I want to say we are truly gifted by the richness of his spirit as well as the many stories and “promes” (his word for his particular prose/poems) full of rich language and wonder that remain even in his absence. (If you would like to read more – tributes and reflections as well as some of his words in essay and interview – the links are below.)

So my return to my own creativity, as well as to the desire to live fully into each day, comes in part from this latest reminder of how precious and fleeting is this gift of time we have here on this planet, in this life.

 

Brian Doyle’s essays published in Brevity.com

Brian Doyle’s interview on Brevity podcast

Brian Doyle and Orion Magazine

An open letter from one of Brian Doyle’s students

Brian Doyle’s last poem

 

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Exciting News and a Playlist

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I’m a day late on my monthly excerpt, but in fact I decided to not post one this month, because (drumroll in anticipation of Exciting News) the messy manuscript is in the hands of a mentor and development director! Max has read it over and made his notes, and one week from today we will have a lengthy conversation about characters and story arcs, scenes and sequencing. Some good, expert guidance to help launch me into the next round of writing (I had definitely lost my way and needed another set of eyes on the thing, some help to get myself out of the holes I had written myself into).

I wanted to let the story stay quiet and simmer a bit on your back burner as well as mine – with hopes that next month I will have an excerpt that will be from an invigorated new sense of direction and energy – I am so looking forward to next week’s conversation, and to getting back into the kitchen with Bea…

…Speaking of which, that’s the “playlist” part of the title of this post. I have been in the process of creating Bea’s Kitchen Playlist; still in progress, I often listen to it while I work on the book. I find it helps to drop me into the story more readily. Who knew?

I decided in lieu of an excerpt, this month I would share with you a sampling from Bea’s Kitchen Playlist. Because of legalities and copyright issues, I may never get to share the playlist in any kind of physical form – but here is a list of a portion of it for you to sample.  Hope you enjoy it – take it with you to your own kitchen?

“Pacing the Cage” – Bruce Cockburn

“Last Night of the World” – Bruce Cockburn

“Ladies Night” – Preston Reed

“Concerto for Two Cellos in G Minor” – Antonio Vivaldi (performed by Julian and Jiaxin Lloyd Webber)

“Chain of Fools” – Aretha Franklin

Learning to Discern

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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.)

The Story Behind 2015

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One of the recent prompts in the Quest2015 project I’m in the middle of came from creative visionary Todd Henry: “If you knew your life’s story will be written based upon your choices and actions in 2015, how would you live?”

(No pressure, right?)

At first I balked, resisted the question.

But wait…aren’t we already writing our life story every day, every moment? Aren’t each of us a living, breathing, acting-out-the-play embodiment of our life story? 

Yes, but Todd’s question asks for a pulling back and taking a longer view. A deeper looking within, as well as out to that horizon-point of the end of 2015; inviting a more purposeful and intentional trajectory through the year.

My fellow Quester Erin Coughlin Hollowell answered this question in a way that resonated deeply with me, and helped me toward further contemplation when she said Be All In.

The more I sat with that invitation, the more I settled into it. Realized that what has so often been missing as I have been growing up and moving along through my life, is the ability to fantasize or imagine an ideal future for myself. How could I gather and direct energy and action in any meaningful way without a target to aim for, without a horizon line to direct my sights, to help pull me toward it? There were glimmers, moments, false starts (or maybe just too-early beginnings). But mostly it was the persistent fog of uncertainty and indecision  and self-doubt.

My Life Story of 2015 actually has its prologue in 2014. 

As a result of big losses and gains and changes that occurred in 2014, I found myself poised on what felt like an abyss of opportunity. The chance to dream and dare bigger than I had ever allowed myself to do before. Still, I wavered. And then, sometime in that fateful summer, Jeffrey Davis posed the question in a posting about his upcoming workshop Your Brave New Story:

“What are you waiting for?”

Oh. That stopped me in my tracks when I read it. Took my breath with it. I was pinned, couldn’t look away. What indeed? Death had shown me how precious these days we inhabit are, and how numbered we can’t know. I felt driven to be able to answer the question posed by poet Mary Oliver, when she asks “…what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” So I signed on for Your Brave New Story. And taking place a month before that, a week-long intensive workshop in the beautiful Colorado high desert with Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, entitled “Igniting the Creative Fire.”

I was not only stepping outside my comfort zone, I was kicking out its walls along the way.

I returned from Colorado and launched immediately into a 10-day, online writing “boot camp” with the amazing Max Regan – 1000 words/day. Prompt arrived by email in the morning, email the results to him by midnight. Not a lot of time for editing, but finished work was not the point. Putting my butt in the chair and writing, every single day like I meant it – that was the point. It was exhilarating. Then, two weeks after that, I was on a plane toward upstate New York and YBNS. Followed closely now back at home, by Quest 2015. What a wild ride. What a fucking wild ride.

I took on some freelance writing clients, I submitted fiction pieces and have received some rejections and waiting for word from the others. I started a Writer’s Blog (you are here) and even a fledgling Celebrant Blog, still in its infancy, far from polished or complete, but that’s okay. It’s a start, a committed start. I have been throwing myself, headlong, over and over again into that abyss of opportunity. Why? Because I feel like I can’t wait any longer.

If this is the prologue, what the hell is the Story in 2015 going to look like?

For the past several years I have, on January 1 or thereabouts, selected a Word For The Year. I write it on a post-it and stick it on the bulletin board above my desk, where it can remind and inform me, act like a touchstone for the year. “Clarity” was the word for 2014; I look up and see it asserting itself to me as I type this. Maybe I will carry it over for 2015, because I think I am not yet done with it, that I still need more clarity. Even though MY LIFE STORY may be written from what I do in this next year, the search and acquisition of Clarity is still a big part of that story.

And, as Serendipity would have it, a post by Marianne Elliott landed in my inbox the other day, the topic being Clarity. Here’s an excerpt:

“Clarity means clear boundaries. It means clear priorities. It means getting clear – as Danielle LaPorte would say – on how I want to feel and being clear on what helps me feel that way.

Clarity helps me recognise the days when I need 20 mins of meditation more than I need a sleep in. And clarity helps me recognize when I need a glass of wine and a movie more than I need to get another item ticked off my to do list.

I don’t always feel clear. Often I get confused. But I know how to find my way back to clarity – it takes space, it takes regular practice, it takes the curiosity to ask myself the important questions, and the courage to be honest in my answers.”

So. With that prologue, I guess my life story’s first chapter, as lived in 2015, will hopefully be titled “Getting Clear.” And we’ll see how it unfolds from there.