The Grief of Writing

Becoming a writer was partly a matter of acquiring technique, but it was just as importantly a matter of the spirit and a habit of the mind. It was the willingness to sit in that chair for thousands of hours, receiving only occasional and minor recognition, enduring the grief of writing in the belief that somehow, despite my ignorance, something transformative was taking place. Viet Thanh Nguyen, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Los Angeles Times, April 14, 2017

 

Port Townsend Sunrise, Spring © Julie Christine Johnson 2017

I’ve been mulling over this essay, In praise of doubt and uselessness, by writer and professor Viet Thanh Nguyen. Rereading it. Pulling out phrases that fire me up and comfort me. In the most potent way that the personal is political, Nguyen tells the story of his evolution as a writer in the larger context of supporting the arts and humanities “for their privileging of the mystery and intuition that makes moments of revelation and innovation possible.”  The hope that the public will continue to value its artists and nurture them, to support their work despite lack of quantitative measurements of success—beyond awards received or units sold—is felt as keenly now as ever.

 

But it is Nguyen’s phrase, the grief of writing, that plays a soft and constant refrain in my mind.

 

A professional writer and editor asked me the other day what I liked to do. Well, beyond strapping a pack to my back and lacing up my boots for 20 kms on trails in southwest Ireland, I like to write. Even those tortured hours of feeling bound by the limitations of my skills, squeezing out 100 words after four hours of pounding work, yes, even that I like. This writer/editor regarded me skeptically, stating he found writing tortuous, the evil means to an end. He preferred editing others’ writing, work he could walk away from without worrying if it mattered to anyone else.

 

Hearing this, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s phrase came to mind. The grief of writing. Knowing that, even as we spill our souls on the page, it might not—it likely won’t ever—matter to anyone else.

 

For the past year, I’ve mourned the lack of writing in my life. Revising, promoting, promoting and revising some more, have taken precedence. But in recent weeks, I’ve come close to capturing my bliss. As I near the end of revising a novel, the first draft of which was complete nearly two years ago, I’ve written new scenes and reconnected with characters I love. The hours I’ve been able to carve out for this writing have brought so much peace and healing. Knowing that in a matter of weeks I will be able to start on something completely new, so new I’m not even certain yet what it is, fills me with joy.

 

I vaguely knew, but didn’t really understand, how much writing would demand from me, how much it would dismantle me as a professional, much to my own grief but ultimately for my own betterment as a writer and a scholar. Viet Thanh Nguyen

 

This past year has been a dismantling of a writer. Necessary, perhaps. Inevitable, according to so many of my mentors who walked the publishing road ahead of me. The grief of writing comes from realizing all that you do not know and accepting that not only are there no shortcuts to gaining that wisdom, but that no one is all that interested in your progress. It is, as Nguyen reminds us, an act of faith and “faith would not be faith if it was not hard, if it was not a test, if it was not an act of willful ignorance, of believing in something that can neither be predicted nor proved by any scientific metric.”

 

And so I come full circle, back to knowing that it is the writing itself that matters, not the outcome, over which I have so little control. The peace and release are their own rewards, and how I know, in the very meat and tendons and veins and blood of my soul, that I am a writer.

 

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Joan Didion

 

The Answers are Inside the Mountains

The Answers Are Inside the Mountains: Meditations on the Writing LifeThe Answers Are Inside the Mountains: Meditations on the Writing Life by William Stafford

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Memorial
In Nagasaki they built a little room
dark and soundproof where you can
go in all alone and close the door and cry.

William Stafford, Poet Laureate of Oregon from 1975 until 1990, crafted over 20,000 poems during his time on Earth- a staggering output. A pacifist—soft-spoken, yet fierce—Stafford was a teacher, a mentor, a wide-eyed, gracious observer and recorder of life. His poems are clean, without guile or pretense and most often set in the natural world. He eschewed the rules of writing, rising above convention to state simply that showing up to the page was enough. That writing made one a writer, not publishing, not critical acclaim, not commercial success.

Find limits that have prevailed and break them; be more brutal, more revealing, more obscene, more violent. Press all limits.

The Answers are Inside the Mountains is one in a series of Poets on Poetry, a collection of interviews and conversations with a celebrated poet, as well as selected essays and poems. It includes a beautiful exchange between Stafford and his dear friend and fellow poet of the West, Richard Hugo. A slim volume rich and full of hope and light, compassion and encouragement The Answers are Inside the Mountains is one of the loveliest sources of inspiration this writer has read.

The earth says have a place, be what that place requires; hear the sound the birds imply and see as deep as ridges go behind each other.

I immediately lent it out to a writer friend and now I am bereft, trying to write this review without the treasured work beside me to flip through and reread. But I took notes in my journal, and took great comfort in reading that Stafford too kept journals, that they were the source of his creativity, one of the places he turned to in crafting his poems, where he worked out ideas and themes, from which he pulled his own material.

Save up little pieces that escape other people. Pick up the gleamings.

At this precarious time, when I struggle to find hope and beauty, I am reminded the answers are in the mountains, the mountains of art that surround me.

We drown in ugliness. Art helps teach us to swim.

I’m closing with a poem that wasn’t in the book, because in searching for another poem, I came across this. It’s been one of my favorites for years and reading it again opened up a river inside me. A river frozen over, now melted by Stafford’s words.

Ask Me
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

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A Word of Resolution for 2017

ra·di·ate verb ˈrādēˌāt/
  1. emit (energy, especially light or heat) in the form of rays or waves. To shine brightly.
  2. diverge or spread from or as if from a central point.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may recall that in lieu of making resolutions to ring in the New Year, I’ve selected a word to center myself for the months to come. Here’s a look back at 2015 and 2016. I haven’t mustered the courage to reread these posts, but I’m not certain it matters. The intention is the journey, no? Looking back to see if you’ve made it to the point, the self, the outcome you’d imagined just seems an exercise in disappointment and regret.

 

But I do see that I chose “embrace” to define 2016. Had I known what the Universe had in store for the year, I may well have chosen “reject”, instead.

 

This year. This achingly difficult, beautiful, complicated, change-ridden year.  A year when life turned itself inside-out. When the world stopped making sense for so many on a bewildering November night. Yet, as much as I welcome an end to 2016, I know that it defines much of what is to come.

 

I ran into a friend in a pub the other night. A new friend, a writer, whom I met at a joyous occasion a few weeks ago, something I’ll tell you more about in a moment. He complimented me on my author website and mentioned reading the page where I cross-post this blog. He expressed admiration for how I lay it all out here, how vulnerable and real I allow myself to be. How ironic, given that I’ve kept so much on the down low these past months, hinting at but never revealing the divergent path I’ve been stumbling down, seeking, but never quite finding secure footing. As a writer. As a woman.

 

My first novel launched on February 2. A novel about grief, rebirth, reincarnation and the muddled line between history and the past, debuting on the day we shrink from shadows, and from a mindless repetition of the mundane. An extraordinary day for me, to be sure. And as the weeks and months unfolded in a celebration of this joyous accomplishment, behind the scenes a twenty-five year marriage was coming to an end. Quietly. With great sadness and bewilderment. More than half my life, defined by partnership with another. And suddenly that which I took for granted, a word, wife, was no longer mine.

 

But other words remained. Woman. Writer.

Local Authors' Night, The Writers' Workshoppe & Imprint Books, Port Townsend, WA, December 3, 2016. Photo Courtesy of Anna & Peter Quinn, Owners.
Local Author’s Night, The Writers’ Workshoppe & Imprint Books, Port Townsend, WA, December 3, 2016. Photo Courtesy of Anna & Peter Quinn, Owners.

Yet, it often felt as though I’d lost sight of even those. The fundamentals of who I am, my place in the world. But looking back on these months, I realize I have never lived more fully as a woman, as a writer, than I have in 2016.

 

Betwixt and between the mind-blowing joy of launching a novel into the world was the agony of divorce. The stress of being a very public “author” vs. the solace and creative growth of being a writer; the delight in sharing my book with readers coming up against the inability to step away to nurture my muse; the heart-quickening embrace of new love meeting the reality of stepping into a traditional “day” job to support myself, thereby letting go of precious writing time… it’s all been so much. So glorious. So painful.

 

In early December, my LBS (aka Local BookStore, you know, those beloved indies that have survived and thrived by connecting dedicated readers with beautiful works of art, one book at a time), hosted a Local Author’s Night. For the first time in months, I was surrounded by readers and authors alike, friends I hadn’t seen in far too long, others I had never met, such as the new friend I mentioned above, who lives across the street, as it so happens. It was a celebration, a coming together of a beloved community, a return to my heart and intellect, a precious reminder of who I am and what I am meant to do.

 

It was also a reminder in this time of political turmoil—as many of us mourn what has been lost and fear what is to come—what role artists play in lifting up, exposing, bringing together, voicing, and providing moments of escape, connection, entertainment, joy, and compassion to our communities. How very important it is to engage and contribute, to be present, not only in one’s own life, but in the world.

 

And so I choose for 2017 the word Radiate. For I am determined that in this new year, which will see the release of my second novel, The Crows of Beara, my work, my words will emit light and energy, will spread from a central point—my soul—to serve a greater purpose.

 

New Year’s Eve day I came across these lines by one of my favorite poets, W.S. Merwin. Here’s an excerpt:

 

“… so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible.”

From ‘To the New Year’

 

Isn’t that extraordinary?

 

Love and hope to everyone for a blessed 2017. Let’s please just do this, all of it, better.

Wait, For Now

Early morning. Hours yet before there is light enough for me to see the full extent of damage to my car.

 

Returning home last night from work, after a stop at the grocery store (oh, if only I’d gone back for the bundle of kindling, which was the reason I’d stopped in the first place, but I was so tired.), eggs and wine and something to stir fry in a sack pressed snug against my laptop bag and the rinsed-out remains of my lunch. I’m traveling the speed limit. I note this for you, because the stretch of road that drops into my village from the hill overlooking two bays is a notorious speed trap. It’s all too easy—when you’re so close to home, when, in the daylight, you’re distracted by the sunglints and sailboats on the water and the mountains beyond—to let the car cruise past thirty, flirt with forty.

 

But I am careful. I drive this stretch a dozen times a week, at least. I know just the right amount of pressure on the gas to keep the speedometer hovering at the limit.

 

On this night, last night, as I dip down into town, glowering headlights consume my rearview mirror. Dodge Ram crawls up my ass, past the diner, past the Safeway, through the intersection and all along the stretch that borders the shipyards. Must not be a local. I let it go, lost in my end of a long workday, rambling, footsore thoughts of dinner, copyedits. I ignore the menacing glare of light behind me; so close to home, one of us is bound to make a turn soon.

 

I’m certainly not thinking about getting sideswiped. I’m not prepared for the driver behind me to decide, suddenly, that he will take the same left turn I’m making, but that he’ll make it first, and in trying to get ahead of me, he runs into me.

 

The driver tells me in the parking lot where we end up, two sets of hazard lights flashing, that he “got tired of waiting for me.” The molding of my side mirror wobbles on the hood of my car, my hands shake as I search in my purse for my insurance card.

2015-08-07-08-44-14-1
Collision Course

 

Awakened by anger in the wee, lonely hours. Dismayed. Hurt. In my mind’s playback loop I keep hearing, “I got tired of waiting for you.”

 

What happened to me last night feels like a metaphor for this long, bitter night of election season. We’re all just so very tired of waiting for each other. And so we ram our own way forward, regardless of anyone else’s safety or well-being. To hell with common sense or what is legal, moral or ethical. We’ve lost our compassion, our empathy, our sense of a greater good. We’ve lost our way.

 

I don’t really know what to do now. I’m not of a mind to forgive. Not today. It’s hard to muster the energy to be an activist, a writer, an engaged human being when merely driving down the road puts you at risk of someone else’s thwarted sense of entitlement.

 

I’m too tired to do much else today but move forward. I have to leave for work again soon. I have to, like everyone else around me, pick up and continue, despite the anger, the despair, the bewilderment. I have to find hope.

 

Wait.
Don’t go too early.
You’re tired. But everyone’s tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a little and listen:
music of hair,
music of pain,
music of looms weaving our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.

~ from Wait by Galway Kinnell (1927-2014)

Loving the Questions

I settled into Virasana, tailbone sinking to the earth between my feet, wrists loose on folded thighs, spine straight, chest taking in more air than I’d breathed all day. I’d arrived to class several minutes early, unrolling my yoga mat in my favorite place before the west-facing window. After a long weekend of torrential rains and gusting winds, the day had been mild–warm really–for mid-October, and the early evening sun was an orb of burnished gold.

 

Suspended light wavered and caught hold of a web just outside the window, illuminating a gloriously fat spider at its center, her world shifting and shimmering in the soft breeze. She glided from the web’s bullseye to make slight adjustments to her woven marvel, returning to the center like a queen to her throne. For the next ninety minutes, as I rose and folded in salutation to the setting sun, I glanced at Spider when I could, until darkness descended in a blue curtain and I lost her to the night.

 

Spider’s commitment to her task, the faith she has in her own strength and purpose, the beauty and rightness of her creation, however temporary, moves me to my core.

 

14231240_10207402653600668_1895796262099603548_o

 

My life is in flux, with strands as shivery and delicate as Spider’s web, but no less connected to the Universe and just as strong for the determination and resolve with which they were spun. Massive changes of heart and mind, changes I have not yet shared here for they are too raw and new, complicated and bittersweet, private and yet rippling with aftershocks into lives tied to my own.

 

At the heart of it, at the heart of me, are my words. I’ve turned inward these past months, writing very little for public viewing. Publishing and then promoting a novel sucked me dry and I’ve had little desire to offer more beyond what’s already out there, or the energy to do more than hone and polish the next novel to meet the next deadlines. But I’ve filled pages and notebooks with private thoughts, all in preparation for  . . . and I cannot complete this sentence. Or perhaps it is already complete. All in preparation. 

 

One of those notebooks, nearly full, ripe and bursting with hope and sorrow and wordswordswords, was tucked in the front pocket of a suitcase, a suitcase that was stolen from a train on one of the many stops between Marseille and Nice a month ago. As maddening as it was to lose everything but the clothes on my back at the start of a three-week journey, the things were all replaceable (and if one is going to lose all her clothing, one should be happy one is in France. Shopping.).

 

My words, however, are not. I mourn the loss of my journal. All that work, gone in an instant, like a cruel hand or a gust of wind ripping apart the strands of Spider’s web. How frustrated she must feel to see her handiwork, her livelihood, torn asunder. But she never fails to start anew. It’s what she does. Spin or die.

 

The occasion of the loss of those words led directly to writing retreat during which I wrote more than I have in a year, since the months leading up to and following the publication of In Another Life and the preparation of The Crows of Beara for its upcoming launch. And every word I wrote was shared with a group of magnificent writers. The writing, the sharing, brought me back to my writer, my storyteller, the center of my web.

 

In his turn-of-the-20th-century Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke implores his friend to stop searching for the answers, to love instead the questions. I realize, as I let go of my losses and look ahead to what I have left and what I have gained, that writing through my private thoughts is a search for the answers. Telling stories is a celebration of the questions. I’ll always dance between the two, but I think I’m ready to live the questions now. And living means writing.

 

I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Rainier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

As Stars Begin to Burn

Three months to the day since my last blog post. Sounds rather like a statement fit for the confessional booth, doesn’t it?

 

“Forgive me Father, for I have . . . ‘  

 

I’ve been asking for forgiveness often of late. Of myself, for myself. Life, having flipped upside-down in recent months, leaves my inside-out heart pushing through a thick fog of self-doubt and anxiety with occasional glimpses of bright blue joy above. Love and belly laughs. Bonfires and beaches. Une chienne blanche. La ville rose. 

 

EndingsBeginningsLossesFinds freefalling like a poem snipped apart and flung into the air, its wordpieces floating to the ground to form new lines, new meanings.

 

When I began writing full-time three summers ago, I worried that stepping off the traditional work-life stage would distance me from life’s theatre, that I would fall into a too quiet existence, all the potential characters and their stories passing me by. I would no longer really live life, only observe it from a comfortable remove.

 

Turns out, I had nothing to fear. Life chased me down. Smacked me upside the head. Said don’t even think about getting comfortable, girlfriend. 

 

And so I am in the thick of it. My own story as large as life, almost larger than I can handle some days. But, fuck. It’s mine. In all its hot mess merry-go-round spinning whiplash glory of possibility and bewilderment of massive change. I am so alive I can scarcely breathe from the force of it.

 

2016-06-18 11.10.27
Manzanita, Oregon Coast, June 2016

And ever the writer, a part of me stands slightly outside, taking note of the emotions that hit my solar plexus like a hammer blow, the characters who crash through my heart’s door in all their noisy love and fury, unlooked for, uninvited, but inevitable. Intended. I create word photographs of the tsunami, knowing my way through this to the other side, to peace and equanimity, will be found on the page.

 

Thank you, precious friend, who read this Mary Oliver poem to me over the phone last night, over the sound of my sobs. Thank you, Poetry, for always speaking my heart.

 

Many thanks to those of you who have reached out to me these past weeks, wondering where I was, whether I was all right, when I’d be back. I’m here. Writing my stories. I’m here. Living this one wild and precious life.

 

I’m here. 

 

The Journey 
 
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

by Mary Oliver 

Taking on the Darkness

A bright spring morning. The boat haven is abuzz with industrial activity, the parking lot in front of the nearby diner, full. The scent of frying bacon follows me up the trail before dissolving into the stench of low tide rot.

 

When I first pass him—me walking at a fast clip, he sitting on a bench, head surrounded by a black hood—my internal radar begins pinging hard. The glance I take from my periphery reveals a face contorted in rage, his hands gripping the edge of the bench, a coiled thing. He is shouting, incoherent, words garbled, but enough of the syllables take shape to understand they are directed at me. I have no choice but to keep going. Coming toward me, about 300 yards up the path, are a cyclist and runner in tandem. I wait until they are close, then turn around.

 

As a runner in Seattle, my guard was always up. I ran in the early mornings, often in the dark, often around Green Lake, where there was safety in numbers—it’s one of Seattle’s outdoor fitness Meccas—but also trees and restrooms and secluded areas to be aware of. Two weeks before we left Seattle for the Olympic Peninsula, a man began attacking women in the early mornings at Green Lake, precisely on the trails I ran, at the times I was there. What a relief, then, to set myself loose on the trails in this idyll of beaches and mountains. My whistle and pepper spray remain in my pack for the occasional coyote or loose dog, or, most troublesome of all, the roving pairs of raccoons, who hiss and charge and move in slinking, snakelike speed if the mood strikes. IMG_0215

 

It happens so fast.

 

I feel as much as see him spring off the bench, words spilling out in growls, nasty and lewd. I don’t run, I don’t turn, I just keep moving until I feel him at my shoulder, smell him behind my back. And then there is shouting from different voices. The cyclist skidding to my side, the runner’s pounding steps. And the young man, retreating. He returns to the bench, face again behind the hood, rocking back and forth, already imprisoned by drugs, alcohol, his own demons.

 

The couple walk me to safety, and seeing that I have my phone in my hand, offer to stay as I call 911. I brush them off. “I’m fine,” I say. “He was high, it doesn’t matter.” I am ashamed. Ashamed that as a physically strong woman, I didn’t try to take him down. Ashamed that I’d been so afraid. Ashamed of my vulnerability. Ashamed, perhaps, of my own body, that someone would say the things he said to me, that I could attract such ugliness. Because I’d been walking, with no intention of heading into the woods, I had carried only my phone and my innocence.

 

And then I see two women, separated by a few dozen feet, making their way up the trail, in the direction of the man who had come after me. In the distance, I see he still sits, waiting. What am I thinking? Of course I will call. If not for myself, than for all the women behind me. I hold out one hand to stop the first woman, even as I dial 911 with the other.

 

The officer who responds to my 911 call sees me out walking two mornings later and stops to give me an update and a bit of the man’s story. The 28-year-old is well known to local police. He was arrested twice on this day—once for accosting me and then again a few hours later for unrelated charges. Drunk. High. Unhinged. I’m sure there is much more that I’ll never know. Frankly, I hardly care.

 

~

 

In nearly six years of blogging, I have never received a negative comment. WordPress does a great job of catching spam, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean a comment from a real person that is intended to wound and harm. But it happened recently, in response to my post Getting Ready To Exist. What this woman, who identified herself as a writer and mother, wrote does not bear repeating. But in a space in which I shared my grief at having literally lost my chances at motherhood through multiple miscarriages, someone thought to express their conviction that because of my obvious weaknesses, the flaws in my character, I couldn’t handle motherhood, anyway.

 

In thinking through how these two events have affected me, with their immediate and latent anger, hurt, and shame, I recognize the destructive power of the untold story. Sitting on shame and regret only allows those feelings to fester and infect perspective. Conversely, when we share our truths, reveal the things said and done that wound and harm, we open ourselves to empathy for others, we allow in healing. Our personal narratives become shared connections and conversations that hold value beyond our own lessons learned.

 

My safe places are no longer safe. Were they ever? Of course not. The trolls, whether they lurk on park benches shrouded in black hoodies or in the virtual world behind the anonymity of a computer screen, have always been there. But I haven’t stopped my early morning hikes or my blogging. I reclaim these spaces. I reclaim my voice.

 

 

“I’m not interested in blind optimism, but I’m very interested in optimism that is hard-won, that takes on darkness and then says, ‘This is not enough.’ But it takes time, more time than we can sometimes imagine, to get there. And sometimes we don’t.” Colum McCann, author and founder of Narrative 4, a non-profit that trains schools, students, community leaders in storytelling and storycraft as a way to foster empathy and build community.