An Enchanted Life

An enchanted life has many moments when the heart is overwhelmed with beauty and the imagination is electrified by some haunting quality in the world or by a spirit or voice speaking from deep within a thing, a place, or a person. ~ H.L. Mencken

 

Oh great, here comes AFPGO: Another Fucking Personal Growth Opportunity. ~ Unknown

 

About a mile into a run last week, I stopped. Just stopped. I couldn’t. There are times when my body needs a break from running and I try to listen. I try not to judge. I walked home with tightness in my chest and heaviness in my limbs. I thought, “I’ll just swim laps at nine.” Nine came and I lowered myself into a hot bath. That was the water I needed, water like the warmth of the womb. I needed to be comforted, not challenged. I needed to soak, before I sank. I was utterly overwhelmed.

 

The slow creep of mud that finally reached my mental shoes, stopping me in my tracks—this weird blend of acedia and agitation—wasn’t a surprise; I’d felt it coming. It started, perhaps, a couple of weeks ago, when I found myself in the midst of a tremendous online chorus of writers, some of whom are my literary heroes. I was amazed and delighted to have been included in their ranks. Their voices swelled and rose in a mighty roar of energy and affirmation that took my breath away. I found my way through the crowd to quieter corners and rooms down the hall, making personal connections with a few voices that reached me with calm clarity, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow I didn’t belong there, that these writers, these thousands, were accomplished and ambitious in ways that are completely foreign to me, perched as I am on this almost-island, in my quiet sunroom, spinning my modest tales that no one would mistake for great literature or groundbreaking creative non-fiction.

 

Time to retreat. I stopped reading the bios that made me feel so woefully inadequate, I withdrew from conversations that sped past faster than I could read or type, reminding myself that time spent wishing I was more, did more, risked more, reaped more, was time spent not doing the one thing that mattered most: writing.

 

I returned to my keyboard and to my mind, wrote a flash fiction piece, finished the first draft of short story, and began researching literary journals to submit each. I did yoga on the beach, I hiked, I walked. I read a volume of beautiful poetry. I filled two boxes for Goodwill, because when I get like this, I want to lighten all my burdens, I want to clean out, get rid of, eliminate, discard, set myself free.

 

But still the disquiet remained. A torpor dulled my sense of possibility and joy, sitting heavy in my core, while anxiety beat a woodpecker’s refrain against my heart. I knew I hadn’t gone far enough in seeking the peace that would guide me to back into the light.

 

When the interwebs cease to be a source of information, of playfulness, of social release and friendship, I know that something is happening inside of me that bears watching. I know it’s time to be careful, that the world is about to swallow me with noise. When I agitate instead of participate, it’s time to shut it all down and walk away.

 

When I begin to despair that my writing doesn’t stack up and that my future will never brush the dizzying heights of those in my online communities, it’s time to recommit myself to the page.

 

Echoing a remark a writer friend made here recently, it’s possible to read too much about and into the writing and publishing process. It’s possible to fill your mind with so much advice on craft, so many dos and dont’s of seeking publication, that you get mired down and find yourself unable to move forward.

 

It’s possible to let the world get too loud.

 

I shared a draft of my query letter on a limited-public board last week, seeking critiques from fellow writers. One commented that my query was too perfect, too textbook. I’d felt the same, so the comment didn’t sting, it confirmed. It came as a relief. I was right. In trying so hard to adhere to all the pro tips, I’d lost my voice. I rewrote it (again. again. again.) and I feel there’s more of me in there, but it’s not yet where it needs to be.

 

Until I can find my stride and run again, I’m deleting those writers’ tips blog posts that get routed to my inbox. Until I feel safe in myself again, I’m staying away from the social media where I feel vulnerable.

 

I want to be overwhelmed with beauty. I want to be electrified by some haunting quality in the world or by a spirit or voice speaking from deep within. These happen only in two places for me: outside and on the page. That’s where you’ll find me, in case you’re wondering where I’ve gone off to …

 

7/5/14

ETA: A couple of wonderful articles have made their way into my life in the week since I first published this post. Just had to share:

The Secrets of the Creative Brain by Nancy Andreasan, for The Atlantic

Why Every Story You Write is a Guaranteed Failure by K.M. Weiland, on her eponymous blog

 

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After the storm ©JulieChristineJohnson 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

Slip Sliding Away

I locked the door behind me and slipped into the cool morning, my final e-mails sent, my final bank statements reconciled. I slipped the key into the mail slot next to the front door and just like that – no fanfare, no trembling of the earth –  I became unemployed a full-time writer.

I think I’ve done what I could to set this up so I can look in the mirror every morning and assure myself it’s going to be all right. Private health insurance for me, new and improved life insurance for the hubs, enough set aside for a disaster. I have a sense of direction and a few self-imposed deadlines. I rearranged my office, ordered a stand-up desk for my laptop, made out a writing to-do list and sallied forth.

The Gremlin of Self-Defeat perches on one shoulder. Picture him nearly tumbling off, he is cackling so hard. The Faerie of Belief (who looks amazingly like Glinda, the Good Witch of the North) twirls her sparkly wand and makes all sorts of soothing noises, but thus far hasn’t been particularly helpful. Like, not giving me the right words so I don’t have to sweat them out on my own.

Still, I had a lovely transition to the writing life last week, attending the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. The Conference offered the inspiration I needed to believe I had to give this a try. That even failure would be better than a lifetime of woulda-shoulda-coulda. It’s been only a week, so I’m a little wobbly with what I’m supposed to be doing, besides writing. Which I was doing before unemployment  I decided to try writing full-time, of course. But now I have so many more hours to fill. And finding they aren’t enough for all I want to do.

In the past week, I revised an already-published short story and sent it off for consideration for a new anthology. I’m revising/polishing two other published short stories for a couple of contests and two unpublished shorts and a flash fiction piece to send out to journals. I started a new short story. I’m thinking I’ll take a day or two each week to work on these – a little cross-training for the main event.

I landed on 128,000 words a couple of weeks ago – roughly a 340 page novel. I’m so close to the end, but struggling to write the final scenes and bring all the pieces together in a tidy but satisfying dénouement. I decided it was time to print out the whole crazy mess and start a re-read and a revision from page one, trusting I’d find resolution of the end along the way.

Ah, Jeez. What year is this? How does 2015 sound for a goal end date? Crikey. This is going to take some time. I park at the beach and read aloud to myself in the front seat of the car, red pen in hand. I spent Sunday afternoon filling pages with plot notes that I had to sort through and transcribe. Two mornings spent rearranging scenes. Literally laying them out on the floor and rearranging them, storyboard-style.

But more on the process of revision later. I had a couple of a-ha moments last week, thanks to some super-amazing lectures and workshops which I’ll share in a subsequent post.

In the meantime, here I am, with Gremlin and Faerie on my shoulders, doing their thing. I had some very dark moments during the week, rereading and falling into my own plot holes. I thought, “Julie, this is shite. Really, sweetheart. It’s crap.” But then I’d read a passage or part of a scene and I’d feel it, I’d feel the story. I’d lose myself and forget to look for junky little filler words or moments of telling instead of showing or a better verb.

I tell myself I have to see this through, I have to take it as far as I can. There will always be jobs – I’m through with careers, but I can always find another job. I won’t always have this time, this summer, maybe I won’t even have this hope. But I have it now. And I want to use it, before it slips, slides away.

Whoah God only knows, God makes his plan 
The information’s unavailable to the mortal man 
We’re workin’ our jobs, collect our pay 
Believe we’re gliding down the highway, when in fact we’re slip sliding away 

~Paul Simon

 

The Apprentice

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”—Ernest Hemingway

Word came during my last days in Seattle, when I was living out of a suitcase and tripping over rolls of paper towels and a growing pile of jetsam destined for Goodwill. After the initial indulgent Facebook “Guess What?! Squee!” post, I filed the warm glow. I didn’t have the emotional reserves to consider what the letter really meant. What it could mean. And how much it really hurt to say, “No. I can’t accept.”

So, I didn’t. Consider it, that is. I got through that final, wretched week, made the final, back-breaking part of the move, started one job, then another. I tumbled headlong for my funky little ville –  its sea breezes and sunrises over Mount Baker; the deer wandering on beaches, porpoises weaving in the bay, eagles floating just above Doug firs; those fine Friday nights sitting outside the Pourhouse, watching tipsy bocce ball matches and dogs chasing seagulls; walking my brief commute instead of timing a drive to avoid the inevitable Seattle snarls. In a few short weeks, it seemed as if I’d left the old life in the dust, with nary a glance in the rearview mirror.

Then the follow-up e-mail came. “We want you. We haven’t heard from you. Will you come?”

I recounted here the night in November when I battled rain, the nasty Mapquest Wench and my night-driving terrors to walk unfashionably late into an info session about a local university’s MFA in Creative Writing.

I wrote my personal essay. I cringed over my sample piece of writing. I fretted about the letters of recommendation, wondering if faculty from my Masters degree would remember me, nearly twenty years on (Lord, it’s happened. I’m middle-aged. It’s no longer “Oh, my 20th high school reunion is next year; it’s “I completed a Masters degree. Twenty years ago.).

But I got the darn thing in. Eleventh hour. End of January. My first – my only – MFA application.

I had it all planned out, in the unlikely event I was accepted. I’d cut back to three days of work during the academic terms. The tuition was shocking, but we’d just paid off the car. Spread out over two years, the tuition and fees could be easily managed, no need for a loan, Bob’s your uncle.

Then things got messy. Crappy, really. We decided it was time to go.

And they decided to admit me. With a scholarship.

There’s really no use in trying to make sense of why things happen the way they do. I stared at that letter, sitting between the rubble of an old life and hopes for the  new one. I may have laughed. I know I cried. I think I heard in the distance Blind Boy Fuller crooning and finger-picking, “I Got the First World Blues.”

I hoped someone would make the decision for me. Or that a shining light would beam down and show me the way to “Here’s What You Should Do.”

There was grace in the form of a deferment. Of all people, I know how life can change in a year’s time. Or in ten minutes.

Acceptance into a Creative Writing MFA program felt like finding the Golden Ticket in a Willy Wonka chocolate bar. I’d get to see the inside of that mysterious house on the hill. I’d be an invited guest, learn all the secrets and emerge a changed writer. A real writer. Right?

_____

About a mile from my house is Fort Worden State Park. If the film An Officer and a Gentleman appears in your pop culture lexicon, then you’ve seen Fort Worden. As well as the Port Townsend Paper Mill. And the inside of Room 10 at the Tides Motel. I’ve stayed in that room. Don’t you. Trust me on this one.

The Tides Motel: Room 10
The Tides Motel: Room 10

Fort Worden – besides being a sublime place to run, to picnic, beachcomb, catch some astonishing views – is home to many arts and crafts endeavors, including Copper Canyon Press and the Port Townsend School of Woodworking. It also houses Centrum, one of the Pacific Northwest’s premier arts organizations. Centrum’s Jazz and Blues, Fiddle and Chamber Music festivals are world-renowned, as are its dance programs. Were I an artist afloat, I’d sure as heck want to land a residency there. It is the temple around which this Mecca for creative souls is built. At least I already live here. Which is so very near to there.

And for two weeks each summer, Centrum hosts the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. You can opt to spend your mornings in a Master Class with a Famous Writer or Poet and afternoons attending your choice of workshops; or you can attend the afternoon workshops only. Lunch and evening lectures are free. One week or two, depending upon your budget. And your courage.

Of course I planned on signing up for the conference. I can WALK there, for Pete’s sake.

But I kept putting it off. The folder sat on my desk for weeks. I started then cancelled my on-line registration twice. Not because of the money. Or the dodgy state of the job. Or thoughts that I should be busy finding another (pretty much worked through that one. “No” is the approach du jour). I couldn’t decide if I wanted to do a morning Master Class and if I did, which one? With Famous Author or the guy I hadn’t heard of? Or maybe not Master Class, but just the afternoon workshops? One or two weeks of afternoons only? Or one full week with Master Class and afternoons? Or?

I’m not an indecisive person. I brook no dithering. So, what’s the problem here, Julie? Sign up, already.

I realized by clicking “Confirm” on the registration form, I was making a statement about myself, identifying myself as a writer in a forum populated by published authors, some of whom make a living with their scribbles. I’d be expected, you know, to write. Intimidation and insecurity kept my finger hovering, wavering and finally, withdrawing from that final click.

But hey, wait. I’m published! Somebody wanted me badly enough for their MFA program, they offered me what funding they could. And neither one of those has anything to do with being a writer. The only rules, qualifications, expectations are those I’d saddled myself with.

I hit “Confirm” yesterday.

Much to my relief disappointment expectation, my dithering netted me a spot on the Wait List for Master Class with Famous Writer. I’m Lucky Wait List Contestant #3. Not so bad, really. And if a spot doesn’t open up, well then. It’s two weeks of afternoon workshops for me.

Of course I’m going. It’s what I came here to do.

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View from Fort Worden, Port Townsend, WA

Next year will be what it will. Next month is spoken for.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PS I’m trying out this new contact form thing. I’m not sure why or how it’s different than “Leave A Reply” Let’s see what happens…