Writing as Fast as I Can

We’d been anticipating his journey for months and by mid-summer, we’d set the departure date: the Monday after the Saturday when his youngest daughter would leave the nest for her college freshman year.

 

How long he would be gone was vague. Once, in the late spring, he mentioned Thanksgiving and my heart sank. I would be spending the autumn alone, each day growing darker and colder, the daily phone calls becoming perfunctory. I would grow used to taking up space in the bed again. Folding only my own underwear. Dinners of popcorn and wine.

 

But I knew this journey had to be taken. A man on the cusp of life change, a nest emptied as last as the last child took flight. Before he could look to the future, he needed to reconnect with his past.

 

And so I began sinking into the hammock of alone time. Day job, during this almost-busiest time of the year, would suck up hours. One of the yoga studios I frequent announced a 30-day challenge (okay, 31 days, on account of October being the month). So my morning and early evening would be bookended by intense practice.

 

And I would write. The quiet evenings and weekends held the promise of words. Uninterrupted by conversation or dinner, the setting aside of laptop to curl into his arms, snuggling into that broad chest and the oblivion of Netflix or NFL or one of the books stacked on the nightstand. No, my keyboard would softly click and the counter would tick upwards, filling in the gaps of empty space with words. I set myself a word count goal — not anything like NaNoWriMo’s 50,000 extravaganza, but something momentous for me, at this time.

 

Four years ago, in the dark and tender ten weeks between mid-January and early March, I completed the first draft of THE CROWS OF BEARA, some 110,000 words. The novel poured out of me. I had the time to catch all the words on paper. It was a synchronicity of circumstance—the graciousness of my then-partner that allowed me the time, free from the pressure of a day job, to write—and inspiration that brought the most precious elements of the story to my heart and soul. It is a standard I continue to hold myself against, as ridiculous as that is, for few among us have uninterrupted time to write our stories. We have vocations, ailing parents, second families, our first children, partners with dreams of their own who need our support, financial or otherwise.

 

Still, I have my own past productivity — three novels written in three years — against which I measure the writer I am now.

 

I’m often asked when my next book is coming out. I posted on Facebook a few weeks ago the triumph of having a short story placed in a literary journal. A number of people misread my post and congratulated me on my forthcoming novel. Someone reported having seen my third novel in a bookstore, which thrilled me to no end, except that the novel is still on submission in its quest for a publishing home. Maybe it was a dream. Maybe I’m manifesting my own misguided expectations.

 

During that time alone – a month as it turned out- I realized I’d gotten stuck in my own story. Not the one I’d been trickling into Scrivener, but the one I had stored in my heart. I took the time to do so many things other than write. I sat in silence. I remembered. I mourned. I began to forgive myself.

 

And then I continued to write.

 

This novel will take as long as it takes. If I have one resolution for this year, it is to manifest grace. Grace, and its sister-words mercy, generosity, tenderness, compassion, forgiveness, is my journey, the only way I will make it to the page. 

 

Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.   Ann Patchett, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage 

Concerned with Possibilities

“Scholars look for final truths they will never find. Creative writers concern themselves with possibilities that are always there to the receptive.” 
― Richard Hugo

One of my greatest joys as a writer is being in communion with other writers. I’m not able to teach as much as I once did and I long for the weekly Novel-in-Progress workshops I led; I gained at least as much as I gave by thinking critically and constructively about writing. I left each week intoxicated by the beauty and spirit of those writers’ words and their dedication to craft. 

I continue to offer the occasional one-off workshop, and I freelance as a developmental editor. During the hour-long drive home after a workshop a few weeks ago, my true calling as a facilitator came to me. I help writers find their stories.

So often writers arrive at a workshop, or send their manuscripts or query letters, certain they are writing about one thing. During the course of a weekend, or over the months we work together on a developmental edit, we so often discover together that their true story (so to speak) is something else entirely.

Petey: Garden Summer 2018

I ask, over and over, hoping it will become a mantra in the course of writing draft after draft, “What does your protagonist want?” For it is the protagonist’s internal goal that becomes the spine of the story.

The brilliant Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story and Story Genius, talks about driving desire – the emotional agenda that steers your protagonist -which shapes how she views and responds to the world. That driving desire, and how your character moves through the story to satisfy it (i.e achieve the goal), is how you get under a reader’s skin, and hold their heart fast to page.

I think of my protagonist in my WIP, Kate, and her driving desire. Justice. She abandons the desire when it seems pointless and pretends that all she wants is to be numb, to move on with her life and forget the past, but her desire, the core of her, is too great to be denied. That driving desire is the story; the plot becomes all the obstacles in her way and how she overcomes them, or doesn’t.

As writers we are so often concerned with what’s happening, how we can move this scene forward into the next—the plot. We forget that the plot is the vehicle moving the story forward. But the driver behind the wheel is the protagonist’s internal desire.

Isn’t this how we move through life? The doing of it, the to-do lists, the goals and expectations, appointments and obligations that become the plot of our lives, when the real story is the why and who of those endless lists and obligations. 

If you are a writer, I challenge you to identify your characters’ desires and goals, how these change throughout the course of the narrative, and how each scene and plot point acts in service or awareness of the driving desires. 

I challenge us all as humans to step back from the plot of our lives to examine our stories for our own driving desires. 

“Only when we’re brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” Brene Brown

Refilling the Well

“You may do this, I tell you, it is permitted. Begin again the story of your life.”  Jane Hirshfield

 

My last post here was an outpouring of grief. I’d just lost my beloved cat, Camille, a loss that stops me cold in quiet moments. But in her death was the grace and necessity of catharsis, for in the mourning of that sweet creature, I released the grief of other losses, regrets, and pain: my marriage, my mother, my miscarriages, even of friends who fell away when my personal storms blew the satellite models of normalcy to hell.

 

I resurfaced in the midst of grief, still surrounded by it, but no longer carried away in its current.

 

At some point I wandered away from social media, without intention (I feel frissons of Fremdscham when people announce on Facebook that they are taking a Facebook break; I imagine someone loudly announcing their departure in the middle of a crowded party. The room goes silent for a second, then there is a collective shrug, a turning away, and the cacophony resumes at a higher intensity, uncaring and annoyed). I’ve felt strongly the need to reserve my energy and thoughts for my work, to preserve my words. At the same time, my reading picked up pace, resuming its former, pre-marriage-ending levels when my concentration was intact: two, three novels a week. I wondered if I were procrastinating—all this reading of others’ work instead of focusing on my own—but I realized this too was part of the work, as it ever has been. I am refilling the well. Reading, writing reviews, brought me to the page in the first place. The more I fill my soul with sentences and phrases that make it sing, the more I have to work with. The more I write. First comes the necessary stillness, then the slow trickle of ideas that become words that become a story.

 

It’s been nearly three years since I’ve given myself over with abandon to new characters, although our time together is only so many stolen moments—in the stillness of early morning, a warm late afternoon at water-view beer garden picnic table; a sleepy Sunday in the backyard as the dryer vents out heated air…

 

I’ve written through three weeks without a laptop, after mine died and I waited for the replacement to travel from mainland China to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Alaska, Kentucky (?), Seattle and finally my front door. I indulged in new notebooks, copying passages from Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, scribbling story ideas while researching news articles on my phone.

 

I can’t recall when I stumbled across the Hirshfield line, “How fragile we are, between the few good moments.” Yet there it is, in a scene of my new novel, clumsily recited by Ben to Kate, who lets him ramble on, unaware the line isn’t his, and frankly, not caring. She’s not a poetry fan. She slips away from the reading a few minutes later, muttering something about a bad oyster in the ear of her friend Gina, who dragged her to the event. It’s Kate’s fragile moments I am exploring, even as mine become anecdotes in a larger life.

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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Shards

Concrete walls with long shards of glass embedded along the top, brutal points glinting in the hazy yellow light of the Sahel, surrounded the American embassy compound. Similar defenses protected private homes in the few neighborhoods that boasted living trees and roads with some tarmac still intact. Those with any means walled themselves behind concrete and cut glass, the only entrance a metal gate guarded by men with semi-automatic rifles and chained dogs kept on the cruel side of hunger.

 

Once, two Marines in a LandCruiser drove us to the home of an American defense attaché to spend the night. It was meant to be a treat. Air conditioning. Eating with utensils instead of scooping with our right hands. A bath. A bed not tented by mosquito netting sprinkled with termites. No snakes, frogs, cockroaches. No feral dogs seeking shelter, watching us from across our one-room mud hut with eyes glinting in the moonlight. A toilet.

 

As a Chadian man cleared the dinner table with white-gloved hands, the attaché’s wife said–she actually said–“It’s so hard to find good help here.”

 

I have tried to write about Chad for years, since an aborted attempt as Peace Corps volunteers in 1993 left us emotionally and physically compromised, and full of shame at not having endured the full length of our assignment. Leaving was an ethical decision: Chadian teachers were caught in a cycle of not being paid, striking until a bit of money and empty promises of reform were tossed at them like crumbs. Peace Corps volunteers stepped in to fill the gap in local schools and suddenly, who needs the Chadians any longer? Where’s the impetus to effect real change when outsiders will save the day? We were sick, morally, at the arrogance and illogicality of our presence.

 

We left. Alone. Months later the program collapsed behind us.

 

After Chad, we lived with friends in western Colorado, a place of intense and majestic beauty. We shared their tipi on a patch of high mesa. No concrete walls, no shards of glass embedded to keep out those intent on harm, or perhaps just justice. Only thick canvas walls. We came to rest and heal. To rebuild. Yet we were wounded all the same by invisible, razor-sharp shards of expectations and assumptions. A proposition made and rejected. A rejection that resulted in retaliation and betrayal. I have tried to write this story of Colorado for years, as well.

 

Because these stories, this particular time, are as locked together in my mind as Chad is by desert and Colorado by mountains and plain, I feel them as inextricably linked. A husband and wife lost, bereft, betrayed by expectations, by those they assumed would give them shelter: the U.S. Government; two close friends. Even now, twenty-three years later, I know I have not forgiven.

 

At last, the story is written, Chad and Colorado woven together, a needle pulling thread.

 

It’s rare to receive feedback from literary journals. They reject your work with a form e-mail that offers no insights, just “Hey, this isn’t for us. Good luck!” But this particular story garnered editorial feedback from two literary journals in which I’d be thrilled to be included. I am proud of these Nos, for they came accompanied with high praise. But the story was ultimately rejected by both for the same reason: the events just seemed unbelievable. What the young married couple had experienced strained credulity to the point of exasperation. Of course, everything that happens was ripped from the headlines of my life, as true as my memory and my journals of twenty-four/three years ago recall.

 

So I brought my story to a multi-day writing workshop recently, requesting insights on how to pull myself, the author, out of my own narrative and write in service to the story. How could I craft a better story, regardless of what really happened? If I intended to write a piece of non-fiction to honor my personal truth, I could go the essay route. But what I really want is tell a good story.

 

Critique is also meant to be in service to the story. How can we, as writer-readers, offer feedback that will help the writer take the best parts of her narrative and improve upon those?

 

At the start of the workshop, our instructor outlined the conditions whereby feedback was to be given: Our critique should determine how the work has affected us emotionally and intellectually, without criticism, without judgment, without using phrases such as I don’t like or this doesn’t work, which blame instead of exploring a story’s nature and its possibilities. We were promised safety.

 

Yet, the very first writer to offer up her story crumbled as parameter after parameter was crossed, the understanding between writers crumpled and tossed out the window. She finished the day and never returned, impaled on shards of poorly executed critique. Expectations shattered by reality; trust, betrayed. She and I shared a 3:00 p.m. bottle of wine later in the week, lamenting the irony that only the instructor could be heard using the verboten phrase, this doesn’t work . . .

 

“It’s so hard to find good help here.”

 

And what of my own work? A dozen copies of this story, with a dozen sets of interpretations and suggestions, sit in a folder. I am left with the shards of my narrative, my truth, shining and cruelly sharp at my feet, ready to be melted down and reshaped into something new.

Reflections on Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘In Other Words’

In Other WordsIn Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

I realize that the wish to write in a new language derives from a kind of desperation. I feel tormented, just like Verga’s songbird. Like her, I wish for something else — something that I probably shouldn’t wish for. But I think that the need to write always comes from desperation, along with hope. Jhumpa Lahiri

 

Twenty-one summers ago I was finishing up one graduate degree in International Affairs and preparing to start a second degree in Linguistics, moving from an inquiry the effects of women’s levels of education in the developing world have on household income, birth rates, and infant mortality, into an examination of how language affects our creativity. I intended to pursue a Ph.D in Linguistics and was mulling over a dissertation on expatriate writers in France who wrote in their adopted language. I planned to explore how writing in French had changed their approach to the language of their stories, how this second—or some cases, third or fourth language—influenced the content, rhythm, and expression of their thoughts.

 

Then I was offered a job, a great job, in my first field. I pondered the inherent financial and professional insecurities of a life in academe and I turned from the Ph.D path, away from Linguistics.

 

Oh, the irony as twenty years later I try to make a living as a writer, having turned from the path of financial and professional security and stability because it wasn’t a life authentic to me. If someday I achieve a measure of commercial success, I will relocate lock, stock and barrel to France, where I can immerse myself wholesale in a language and culture that fills and sustains my heart and intellect.

 

Along comes Jhumpa Lahiri with In Other Words, a luminous meditation on how immersion in another language changes a writer’s soul. In this evocative and earnest collection of brief essays on learning to express herself in Italian, Lahiri touches on everything I felt to be true or what I have experienced with equal intensity living in France and living in the French language: the daily intoxication and despair, the loss and discovery of self, the intimacy and estrangement that come with linguistic and cultural displacement.

 

This is not a book on what it’s like to live in Italy. It is not a travelogue, a glimpse into a place any of us fortunate enough to have traveled there or who dream of going can mine for memories or tips. It could be set in Poland or Peru. This is a memoir of the mind of a writer who finds herself humbled by language. Lahiri writes of her first experiences crafting a story in Italian, “I’ve never tried to do anything this demanding as a writer. I find that my project is so arduous that it seems sadistic. I have to start again from the beginning, as if I had never written anything in my life. But, to be precise, I am not at the starting point: rather, I’m in another dimension, where I have no references, no armor. Where I’ve never felt so stupid.”

 

I am reminded as I savor these hesitant, glorious essays that my instincts two decades ago were right. Even then, so many years before I began writing, I understood the metamorphic potential that profound engagement with another language held for a writer. In Other Words has given me reason to take up that dream again, this time not at a scholarly remove, examining other writers’ lives and work, but as a way to enhance my own.

 

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