Monday, November 27, 2006

Fallow Periods

It's 8:30 PM and writing time; do I know where my ideas are?

Of course not. Yet, I sit down to write anyway, just as I tell my students, and nothing comes out. Or I just stare off into space, somewhere above my computer, and waste my time not writing. Worse yet, I do write and what comes out is a weak and painful trickle, about a paragraph's worth.

In college, with my friends, we had names for it. "Writer's sludge" was my favorite. It's somewhere in between a complete and total blockage and the aforementioned trickle. When I was in college, I had the time to work through the sludge and break through. It's such a rare and amazing feeling at that moment when I break through and start creating again.

Now that I've got only between a half an hour and an hour a day to write, how can I get my rhythm without the painful yet rewarding process of blocking then breaking? I turned to the internet, and of course, found some interesting tangential information, but mostly the same old advice.

In between the "just do its" and the "create a writing practice" advice listings, I found these two articles:

New Yorker article -- This ran two years ago, but it poses an interesting theory. Apparently, when we moved away from the logical process to the "creative process" within writing, we gained Writer's Block. Apparently, when I was citing inspiration as an almost divine act, I was espousing a Romantic notion.

McSweeney's article -- This is also an old one -- yet it 's very funny. A humorous look at Writer's Block and what's really wrong with writing and not writing.

3) Sydney Herald article -- More recent -- about famous authors who have famously stopped writing. We're not alone.

So for now, I get to suffer in my little writer's block/sludge phases and hope that they pass. Besides, I have something do in writer's group on Friday. If that doesn't inspire me, I don't know what will.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Giving Thanks

I woke up this morning, before dawn broke, with this quote from Ani DiFranco in my head: "I don't always feel lucky, but I'm smart enough to try. Because humility is buoyancy and above us, only sky." I have this posted above my writing space at home, as a reminder to feel lucky in the face of everything. Often times, it's so much easier for me to focus on the stress and negativity in my life, without considering all of things for which I have to be thankful and humble.

So, in the spirit of the day before Thanksgiving, before I have to clean my entire house in preparation for my mother's arrival, while I am watching the Minneapolis sky turn light blue as the sun rises, here is what I am thankful for:

1) My family -- I am very lucky to have a husband, 2 kitties, 2 parents, and a sibling who love me unconditionally. Every day, I try to remember how lucky I am to have these people & animals in my life.

2) My home -- It's getting cold here in Mpls, and I know that I am very blessed that I have a safe place to live and work.

3) My friends -- I have an eclectic amalgamation of friends who I have kept track of semi-successfully over the years. These are the people who have known me through all of my embarrassing phases and transformations and who still love me. (A special thank you should be mentioned for my Mpls. guy friends who stuck with me once I discovered feminism and the Womyn's Center in college.)

4) My writing -- There are times when it seems more like a burden, a chore, a curse, and a failed attempt at expression. (Often all at the same time.) But there are also times when I am driven out of bed, a la Alice Walker's
"I Said to Poetry" and I feel so thankful for those moments of sudden inspiration.

There are a million other small things that I have to be thankful for, everything from computers and cars and addictive television shows/movies, to the brilliant pink sunrise outside my window this morning. But these are my major blessings that I have experienced throughout my life.

So, hopefully, while I'm stuffing myself silly, I'll be able to remember this list. What are you thankful for?

Monday, November 20, 2006

Penis Envy (Sort of) in Writing

Over the weekend, my husband and I saw an amazing movie called The Prestige. It was such a well-written, well-structured movie that my husband (also a writer) was devastated. He was so devastated, so cowed by the quality of this movie, that he considered stopping the project that he's been working on for 2 months. He's 44 pages in and he almost threw in the towel! Weird reaction? Not as weird as you think.

Ideally, writers, when confronted with a sublime example of their art, are inspired to produce work on their own. Perhaps, it inspires an homage to the original work of art. Or, perhaps, the artists are invigorated, ready to confront their work with a new perspective or new verve.

Confrontation with a work of perfect human creation should be, for artists, a confrontation with the divine. When I say divine, I do not necessarily mean the hand of God, although that is what the word is originally derived from. I only mean the contact with something outside of ourselves, that must be expressed through our art. In fact,
American Heritage dictionary, cites one of the definitions of inspiration as "Divine guidance or influence exerted directly on the mind and soul of humankind."

But confrontation with the divine is both splendid and terrifying. Splendidly terrifying. It is terrifying precisely because when a piece of writing or art is so perfectly composed, we can no longer detect the human creator behind the art. It becomes a seamless work of art that seems to be natural. We forget that the quality is not intrinsic to the product; it is there because of the artist. A human artist, with weakness and insecurity and failings, like every other writer or artist out there.

Now, I'm not saying that The Prestige is divine, but it is damn good. But inside its story, my husband was confronted, momentarily, with something special outside of himself. And it devastated him, because he did not know whether or not he would ever produce that same effect on another person. My husband is at that stage in the creative process where his work is still new and tender. It needs nurturing and work, not the evidence of some other writer's brilliant and seemingly seamless handiwork.

I remember, for me, when I was writing my master's thesis that I had that moment. I was a masochist enough to read the early books of many of my favorite writers. I figured at the time that if I could see their unsure, early work I would be encouraged on my own. Instead, I came across a book that inspired me to a full-on breakdown, complete with tears and assumptions of failure. It was called
Ararat, by Louise Gluck. The book was so beautiful and layered and complex, everything I wanted my book to be, that I thought I could never compare. And let's be honest, it's Louise Gluck -- I'm not in the same stratosphere. Once I remembered that, and became okay with that, my writing continued.

So, this week it's The Prestige for my husband and once upon a time Ararat for me. What piece of art was it for you that made you want to quit? How did you survive it?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Wasting Time -- One in a Series

I've been thinking about all the things that suck my time, steal it away in little five-ten minute bursts. I like to think of them as little bandits that rob me of my writing time. It starts out, most of the time, as little increments. Five minutes here, ten minutes there. Then, there are those sneaky thieves that steal larger amounts -- an hour or two. Before I know it, I haven't written all week. I'm left with nothing truly tangible to show for my week.

I originally was going to write about some of my fun & common time waster, but the one that struck me today was stress. Stress is probably the biggest reason for wasting time I have in my creative life. Stress is my most typical excuse for not writing, and my most typical excuse for my more destructive habits. It is as if having a moderately stressful and responsibility laden job absolves me of any creative effort. I can just lounge away my evenings and weekends, in my PJs, all thanks to stress.

I have two or three concurrent stress patterns. My typical stress thinking goes something like this: Man, I have had a stressful day. I don't feel like writing/I can't write. Or it could go something closer to: Man, what a stressful day, I deserve time off. (Deserve is a typical stress word for me. I don't deserve this stress, but I do deserve this 3 hour television watching spree.) Often times, these stress thinking patterns intersect, giving me the double dose of I don't feel like writing and I deserve time off.

Stress is a hungry time waster. While it can take the little bursts of time, it most often results in a lost evening or weekend. I drift in a semi-comatose state, seeking only pleasure and relief while creating absolutely nothing.

The kicker of it is, of course, that my biggest stress reliever is writing. For many artists, this is the case. Writing/Art is the one release we have from the stresses of daily life. Through our art, we can have the flow experience, that moment where we lose ourselves within the act of creation. What can be better than that?

So how do we, how do I, break this cycle of stress & not creating? Easy answer: create new cycles of stress & creation. This is something that I have struggled to include in my writing practice. Sometimes, like today, it is successful. Other times, it isn't. But I can only work to connect pleasure and stress relief with my creation, through practice, rather than tying it to that other obligation that only exists to stress me out.

Monday, November 13, 2006

What I Tell My Students

I started class again today. My school is on a 6 week term schedule, so every 6 weeks is an opportunity to screw up or succeed... for both students and instructors.

As a teacher, I force my students to journal 3-4 days a week. Sometimes it feels like forcing, sometimes it doesn't. To be completely honest, this is more than I journal, myself. I use quotes as starting points for discussion and inspiration, and then ask them to respond to it in writing for 10-15 minutes. As first week quotes, I use the following two:

If not, when? If not me, then who? -- Talmud
As long as you start, you are all right. The juice will come. -- Ernest Hemingway

In the spirit of those quotes, I decided to start this blog today. I've been struggling, now that I'm out of graduate school and working 40-50 hours/week, to fit writing back into my life. So here is a way for me to practice... and back up what I tell my students.

Here's to hoping that it works.