Sunday, January 26, 2014

Procrastination: Friend or Foe?

This morning, I found myself ignoring my own advice to writing students.  Many times I have heard a student fret, “I don’t know what to write about.”  Or: “I can’t get rid of the clutter in my head.”  Or: “I’m distracted; I have too many other things to do!”   The “other things” often turn out to be scrubbing out a dirty coffee pot, shopping for bunny slippers online, messaging a friend with a link to a Huff Post article about a breaking political scandal (such as the romantic shenanigans of the president of France).   How do I know?  Let’s just assume I have a passing acquaintance with these activities.  It’s tempting to think the Internet is to blame, but writers have been procrastinating since the invention of ink.  The French novelist Colette, born in 1873, used to avoid writing by picking fleas from her dog’s coat.   Mystery writer Agatha Christie was said to put pen to paper only after a long soak in her bathtub, munching on apples.

Fleas, apples, whatever it is, I suggest that you go ahead and give yourself 15 minutes to waste time as extravagantly as you want.  You’re going to do it anyway, so make it a deliberate decision and chuck out the guilt.  Go ahead and order those bunny slippers on special, scroll through the recent postings of celebrity bad behavior on Buzz Feed.  But set a timer. And when the timer goes off, get to work.  (Remember the reward at the end, too—see post of December 9.)

So what did I do this Sunday morning?  Everything but what I just recommended.   I “forgot” the timer.  I became suddenly, deeply interested in a stain on the wall behind the cat food bowl.  After energetically scrubbing it away, I realized I hadn’t finished that article on culinary time-savers (did you know you can make bread with only ice cream and flour?).  Then, I decided it was urgently important to bug my teenage daughter about helping me with a pile of laundry, which led to a spirited conversation about an unfinished homework assignment and excessive viewing of Season 4 of “Sherlock Holmes” on her laptop, activities which could not possibly be related.   My husband came home from an errand, and soon we were deep in a discussion about dinner: enchiladas or tacos?  Are the avocados sitting on the counter ripe enough to make guacamole?  The topic expanded to a larger discussion about the environmental impact of buying California avocados in January, and then to the locavore movement, and then…god knows.  I think it was climate change and numerous other global issues that needed to be solved today, by me personally, before I could sit down and write.

But sit down I finally did.  As I started, slowly, to peck at the keyboard, I was thinking that all the good advice in the world about writing doesn’t always translate into action. Sometimes, there are just off days.  Days of procrastination and busy-ness and mundane tasks and other people wanting things: your time, your attention, your brand-new black leather boots.  (No, dear daughter, you cannot borrow my boots.  Because they are new, and nice, and you always get mud on them.  I said no.)  All you can do it shrug, accept it, and move forward.  Or…

Might there be another way of looking at it? Are these necessarily off days?  Or is there a kind of strange comfort, a mental relief in a day of domestic dithering?  Thinking about it, I realize the answer, for me, is yes.  I felt good about getting that stain off the wall – it faintly resembled Stalin and made me uneasy every time I fed the cat.  The laundry got done, and so did the homework.  (Score!) And my husband and I, by the end of our conversation, solved the pressing avocado issue.  Simple, everyday achievements.  But simple, everyday actions are the stuff of life for most human beings, not opposed to the act of creating literature, but the flow of life alongside it.  As the Zen masters say, “Chop wood.  Carry water.”  While engaged in my own version of chopping and carrying, my mind was humming along, turning over an idea for a new essay without my conscious effort.   As I sat down to write feeling vaguely guilty about the morning I’d “wasted,” I found the idea.  It had been there all along, flowing beneath the day’s activity like an underground spring.

So is it true that, as British historical writer Hilary Mantel believes, “imagination comes when you privilege the subconscious, when you make delay and procrastination work for you.”?  Maybe not every time.  But today it was.  Writing eventually appeared on the page, many pages of it.  I know where I want to go for the next draft.  (And the guacamole was delicious.)

Friday, January 17, 2014

Writing and the Body

Talented Bay Area writer Susan Ito, a faculty member in Bay Path's new MFA in creative nonfiction, will be leading a wonderful weekend writing retreat, "Stories of the Body," in San Rafael, Calif., in March.  I won't be in California then, sadly, but I am all for stories of the body and from the body. We need more of them.

I say this because writing can seem a disembodied practice. Unlike other expressive art forms - painting or sculpture, playing music, dancing - writing has no obvious physical component.  Writers are stuck to their chairs; words and ideas come not from movement but from mental concentration.  The language we use to describe the process of writing says a lot about how we look at the process.  "Busting my brain."  "Deep in thought."  "Total concentration."  

I have found, though, that the whole body, not only the mind, is a source of ideas, images, memories, and emotions - all of which serve the writing.  Stories float into my consciousness when I'm walking in the woods.  Baking a batch of scones.  And once, when dragging a pile of dusty boxes from one room to another, sweating and muttering.  Suddenly, I remembered another time when I was knee-deep in boxes, in an empty apartment, with a flimsy futon as my sole piece of furniture and two possessions - the only two -I had asked for after the divorce.  A painting of a stand of birches, and a vacuum cleaner.  That's all I took, all I wanted.  Something beautiful to look at when I woke up in the morning.  And something to clean with, which seemed apt at the time, as I was cleaning out my entire life.  

This particular memory sprang into being only when the physical act of lugging boxes was repeated.  Writing it down, of course, meant returning to the chair.  But the act of moving is where it generated.  And the memory itself was not only visual, but something I felt in my body, in my chest and stomach.  The fear and the loneliness of that time-and the great excitement, too - came rushing back, making it hard to breathe for a few seconds.  The memory was embodied.

Embodied memories came back to me with astonishing vividness after my daughter was born.  So much so that, years later, I went back to the journals I had kept sporadically at the time, and wrote an essay.  "Written in the Body" appeared in the magazine Literary Mama, and I stumbled on it today as I was thinking about Susan's "Stories of the Body" workshop.  It says everything about the way, for me, the body, the mind, memories, and creativity are woven together. And about how, sometimes, the act of recalling can heal. 

"Written in the Body"
by Leanna James Blackwell       

In the dreamtime between feedings, I began to hear the sounds. They rose up from within, a music recorded in my veins that hadn't been played for years.

Nursing my daughter in the first slow months at home, carrying her tiny form strapped to my chest, I was tumbled back in time. Outside, the noise of the city was muffled by heavy shades at the windows, piano music on the CD player, the soft wheezing of two overweight cats. My husband, back at work, was gone until evening. Alone with me, my daughter slept, cried, nursed, fell back to sleep and then woke again, ravenous, crying for the breast. Her skin had the crinkly softness of petals. Her tongue was wet and hot like a cat's. Her fingernails scratched against my cheek like tiny claws. We breathed together, my daughter panting softly. There was no world beyond the two of us.

And then, the sounds, faint but distinct: voices, footsteps, a snatch of song. But the CD player had clicked off; the neighbors were gone, the house was quiet. I thought at first that my mind was drifting back to a novel I had begun writing before my daughter was born, to the sounds of the family stories woven within it. My novel teemed with noise: the calypso din of a backyard limbo party, which the nine year-old narrator crashes, nude; the resonating crack of a child's toy hammer against the keys of an old Chickering piano (the youngest child, in a rage); the determined crunch of tires over gravel as a station wagon, a young mother gripping the wheel, rolls out of a driveway for the last time. And throughout every scene, a torrent of speech -- these were voluble characters, talkers and fighters, people who couldn't keep quiet.

But as I tuned into the voices that mumbled in my ears, I began to suspect. These were not my characters speaking, not the imaginary beings of fiction. I was hearing something else. One afternoon, the something else burst through. A murmuring in my head that seemed to spread throughout my body, as if my body itself were trying to speak. I listened, wondering. My cheeks began a story of brisk, hot reprimands. My arms told another, of a dark giant pulling me out of a hiding place; my back told another still. These were not scenes from imaginary stories. These were the real memories buried beneath my skin, the clay with which I created the world of my fiction, hands muddy, smelling of dark river and earth.

It was one thing to plunge into this territory alone, searching for stories, as I had done before my daughter was born. But I had a baby now, who needed a world of sunlight and air, lullabies instead of shouts. I didn't think I was ready to go back -- either to writing or to the murky landscape of childhood that gave rise to it.  

Too late. Listen, my body commanded. Listen.

I closed my eyes; there was nowhere to go. My sleeping baby lay beside me, diaper freshly changed, milk trickling from her open mouth and moistening my neck. The old tales quietly resumed, moving from wordless pictures to scenes with voices and flashing faces.

First, a hissing in my ears. Whispering fiercely, my mother drags me out of the church pew, the back of my ruffled dress soaked through. I stumble down the aisle, dribbling a trail behind me. The stained-glass angels have witnessed my wet shame, far more stinging than my mother's swift gloved hand when we reach the car. A burning, everywhere: I shake my head to stop the sensation. It disappears as I slowly return to the present.

My eyes fall open and rest on my daughter's face. She stirs, a minuscule freckle twitching at the tip of her nose. I smile, wanting to touch it, and then something tells me: Stop. Remember this.

My old bedroom. Mom, smiling now, is perched next to my pillow. Lightly stroking my arm, she explains that the freckles I dislike so much are kiss marks left by brownies. But what are brownies? Why, fairies, of course, who come into my room at night to pick up my toys. All my freckles are proof: I am the brownies' favorite.

I lie in the dark remembering, my body covered for a moment with hundreds of tiny soft mouths. I glance at my daughter again; if I knew it wouldn't wake her, I'd do the same to her, kiss her arms and legs, her tummy and back, soft head and tiny feet, until she, too is marked with love for life.

My eyes close on this thought but sleep doesn't come, not this day. Instead, more sensations, more stories, streaming by and gathering speed: my shoulders, my spine, my thighs, my feet, until my father, roaring, returns. He bounds up the stairs to the room where my sister and I have just had a noisy pillow fight. We should have been asleep long ago. Daddy will be very angry. Diving under the covers, I watch the door. My father strides through, hand raised high. Sucking in my breath, I mutter a one second prayer: hurry up.

Silence follows.

There is more to this story, or there was, but today I receive no punishment. I breathe, and another story rises in its place. A different time, a different bed. A white canopy from 30 years ago arcs over my bed; a matching, lacy bedspread settles over my legs. I lie quietly, too sick to speak, my throat swollen like a frog's. The frilly bedroom swirls in my fever. Over my head, Daddy's face appears, blue eyes crinkled with worry, mouth slanting into a crooked smile. He lifts up a thick, rough-skinned hand. Dangling from his fingers is a gold bracelet, glittering in the afternoon light. Its tiny charms wink at me like figures in a dream -- a book, a shoe, a rose, a baby piano, a drum, a miniature golden ball. I raise my arm as my father awkwardly slides the bracelet over my wrist.

"Now you're a princess," he says. "And princesses get ice cream." Behind him, on a tray, two scoops of chocolate ice cream glisten in a chipped Minnie Mouse cereal bowl. I sit up and reach for the spoon, my royal bracelet jingling.

I had forgotten that. Remembering only the highlights of hurt, I'd overlooked the moments in which love fumbled for my hand. Could it be an accident that the novel I had worked on for so long before my daughter's birth omitted these moments, too? The hundreds of pages I'd written pulsed with drama, but the stillness between moments of conflict was lacking, the subtlety of small moments like these. Here, in the deeply ordinary world of the motherbody - sleeping and feeding, breathing and bathing - I discovered a hidden spring of memories that began to tell a more nuanced story of childhood. It was as though a roomful of life-sized dolls with carefully painted expressions had suddenly become flesh and blood, had acquired eyes, ears, teeth, tongues.

In earlier drafts, the adult characters were towering, neglectful, engrossed in their mystifying, grown-up struggles and grief. They looked and sounded like people you might know, if you know a lot of striving-to-be-middle-class, barbecue-throwing, hard-drinking Catholics. But if they were "realistic" before, now they were starting to feel real. People who loved as well as they fought, who had hopes for themselves and their children, who tried, when they could, to do the right thing.

Unbidden, inaccessible by any conscious effort, stories continued to rush up at me through the quiet. When I emerged from the daze of the first few months of motherhood, I started to write them down. Keeping a pad of paper by the bed, I grabbed it when my daughter napped, recording everything in fractured sentences, fragments, jagged blurtings. After I began this half-conscious, dashed-off scribbling, the memories began to break through not just silence, but noise, too.

They came as I waited in line at the deli, maneuvered a stroller through Sunday crowds at the city park, pushed a shopping cart through the fluorescent teeming of a supermarket. They came in line at the ATM machine; they came on the freeway. One June morning: sweating in rush-hour traffic on the 580, baby babbling in the back. Heart thudding wildly as my foot hits the brakes: a spike of adrenaline from nowhere. But "nowhere" turns out to be a place, as well marked in my memory as a street on a yellowed map.

I am six or seven years old, sitting in the back seat of our Vista Cruiser station wagon. My mother is driving. Dad is asleep in the passenger seat. Cars are lined up behind us, waiting at the toll before the bridge. Some honk angrily; others make roaring animal sounds as they creep along. The windows are down and my hand dangles in the hot wind. In the other hand, I'm clutching Lizzie, a rag doll with a green pinafore and dark braids like mine. One minute she's sitting quietly in my lap, the next she's gone, out the window and onto the street.

I lean my head out, howling. Arms flailing for my doll. There she is, lying face down inches from a rolling tire -- I wail and sob as the cars inch ahead and Lizzie disappears. And then we jerk to a stop; the door flies open and my mother is out on the road. I watch, frozen, as she rushes down the pavement, twisting her way between cars as people shout at her: Lady what are you doing hey hey lady watch out!

I am shouting too, following my mother's pink dress through the blur of traffic until I lose her and begin to scream. She's gone, swallowed up by a monstrous metal sea -- but then she is running back waving Lizzie in her hand, tossing the doll into my lap as she slides into the front seat and grabs the wheel.

"That was close," she laughs. My father stirs but does not wake up. The car jolts ahead. "What an adventure for Lizzie!" my mother is saying, fishing in her purse for a dollar. I hold Lizzie tightly against my chest, unable to speak. I don't have the words to say it. That my mother, who forced me to finish every hated beet on my plate at lunch, who washed my mouth out with soap for using a crude playground word for "number two," is also my champion, my heroine, my savior. And I won't have the words for another 30 years, until my own daughter holds up a stuffed toy to the window (a hippo, wearing a green shirt), and I remember.

These flashbacks -- I can't think of a better word for them -- formed a parallel history, brighter than the narrative of darkness I'd carried with me into adulthood. The child I once was did know affection and kindness alongside their opposites, small acts of love like cherries in winter. Only moments, perhaps, but as real as the rest of it. These were the moments I wanted to capture not just as an individual soul, remembering, but as a writer.

In my new novel, a young woman plays piano in a hotel lounge, has a love affair with the wrong person, travels to a remote outpost in Canada, discovers both cruelty and kindness in the world, grows up. Her life is shaped by her past, but the past is only part of the story. The characters speaking to me today are people I don't know as well, people who reveal themselves to me as I write. Just as, every day, the child whose birth changed my body and my life reveals another facet of the world, hands me something astonishing -- and beautifully ordinary -- to make into story.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Finding my way back to the page after the distraction of the holidays.  Writing the word "distraction" just now, I wonder why I look at it that way.  I actually enjoyed a lot - if not all - of it.  Time with family and friends.  Time to create a "alternative rock holiday" Pandora station (wow, I'd forgotten about that crazy Bob Dylan cover of "Must Be Santa").  Time to string up lights all over the house, wear sparkly vintage jewelry, pick out presents - especially books - for people I love.  And time to cheerfully imbibe things I usually regard with a wary eye: sugar cookies with a frightening amount of weirdly colored icing, chunky gingerbread persons, cocoa with a hot splash of brandy and, oh, why not, a small Mt. Kilimanjaro of whipped cream on top. There were parties and feasts and get-togethers and events...and during that time, I didn't write a word.

There is a feeling many writers have, that missing too many days of writing means failure.  A fear that the flames must be stoked each day or the fire will go out for good.  What I have found, though, is occasional breaks are good.  Especially if those breaks involve music, dancing, laughing - or walking alone in the snow. It's important to nurture the celebratory part of us, to let go of daily obligations and submit to the seasonal whirl. The fire may dwindle, but creativity doesn't roar 365 days of the year.  Sometimes it smolders for a time, while the conscious mind is elsewhere.  Coming back after the break, tending it gingerly, I find it flares up again.  I also find that I see new things in the writing as I re-engage, things I hadn't noticed before that need to be changed, ideas that take the work in a different and exciting direction.

How about you?  How do you find your way back to writing after a break?  What do you see in the work when you come back?  Whatever you find, I hope it surprises, enlightens, inspires you: and I hope your new year starts off with a sense of good things to come.  Stay warm!