Last night, I attended a workshop called “Embodying the Muse: Where Creativity and Spiritual Awakening Converge.” We had an intimate group, and my anxiety was definitely present even though I know that engaging, listening, and connecting to the body are key activities in creativity, in letting go of hyper-vigilance. I even talk about this in my classes.
In fact, here’s something I wrote last week for an online course:
I think part of the problem lies with Descartes’ famous statement: “I think, therefore, I am.” To me, this radical demarcation between thought and the knowledge of the body has emphasized the power and privilege of thought rather than giving us all, and writers in particular, a place to explore and connect with the knowledge of the body. Put another way, our stories come through our lived experiences, the sounds, smells, tastes, touches, sights we have gone through – the visceral is our most direct route to the stories, poems, plays we’d like to write.
I believe this to be true, but to dive into my own viscerality, to actually experience my body’s knowledge, awkwardness, and fear—that’s another matter. It’s not just being vulnerable, which is HUGE, but there’s some class anxiety as well. I think I’ll dive into the relationship between class anxiety and body work in another post – there’s plenty to explore.
In essence, the workshop was incredibly profound (yes, I did the exercises despite my reluctance) – and the insight that rides forefront today comes from the idea that I get to be as big as I am. I’m guessing for many people, this concept is about taking up space, inviting all the different aspects of themselves into their everyday, but for me, this idea connects to my first memory:
My father is on top of my mother, hitting her. We’re all in the kitchen; she’s under him and my brother and sisters are yelling for him to stop. Me? I’m tucked into a corner, maybe trying to look away.
Ever since that night, I’ve been told I was the weak one—skittish like a badly broken horse. In a hard scrabble existence, I became known as the delicate child, prone to stomach aches and tears.
Last night, I was able to let myself, through time, let that three-year-old be as small as she was – she didn’t need to be bigger than those few days under her belt. She gets to be tiny, frightened, confused. Not pretending that she’s bigger than she actually was will allow me to relax a little, let me soften into what my body was communicating to me in that moment. I was little, I was scared, and if I acknowledge that, maybe I can now be bigger and less scared. Like relaxing a half-tensed muscle by finally engaging it fully, a fuller self can greet each day, both as big and as small as I am.
One of my projects is another book – I’m not sure yet whether it’ll be memoir or fiction. There are pros and cons to each genre, and topping the list of considerations is the impact on my family—especially my daughter, Hope—if I choose to stick with memoir. I’m sure I’ll explore this decision in future posts, but for now, here’s one possible chapter.
Hope’s suggested steps for having a child:
1) First, go to a hockey game.
2) Then you meet at a Valentine’s Party.
3) Grab a box of chocolates and the nearest bouquet.
4) Suddenly, find yourself in a fancy restaurant (you are transported).
5) Move in together.
6) But always sleeping the other way.
7) Expand the house.
8) Make a spa room.
9) Tell ghost stories to each other at night; have trouble going to sleep.
10) The wife starts to buy new bras.
11) The man starts to buy new underwear.
12) Try to get into the Olympics; don’t make it.
13) Buy a dog; housebreak it.
14) Finally, marry.
15) Go to Hawaii for your honeymoon; the plane breaks down—be rescued by a ship.
16) Get to Hawaii. Think is it over rated. Go back home.
17) Make a garden. Plant fruit trees.
18) Buy toys for the kid.
19) Buy diapers, bibs, bottles, finally, a crib.
20) Get condoms in case you’re not ready.
21) Then do it a couple of times with the condoms.
22) Have sex without a condom.
23) People call the lady fat.
24) She starts having pressure.
25) Go to the hospital. Lie down while maids talk to their boyfriends.
26) Finally, have the baby. Think it looks like an over-sized prune.
27) The kid will grow up and go to a hockey game . . .
This next season, I am committing to more presence in my everyday, and this will allow me to revise One Man Reservation with a fuller sense of what is possible, less of having something to prove.
If I listen, the lyric prose I want to inform the work is already there, thrumming with energy, eager to marry the prose line with the blood line. I am beholden to these characters; no one else will dive into their world and swim to the borders of their experiences and return to the surface of the story, language the conduit and the bridge.
With humility, I surrender to the process and privilege and responsibility of being a storyteller, desiring only to be renewed by the creative work and what it has to teach me.
Let’s double down (gracefully), revision.
Ticks are gross; they take up residence and suck your blood, often without you being aware of them.
Rhetorical tics are a little less gross, but can have an equal impact on a narrative, sucking it of vitality. Growing up in the very rural landscape of Mendocino County, I had my fair share of ticks. Apparently, I’m also prone to the other kind, the ones that are slyly working their way under the skin of the narrative, gorging themselves on the story’s lifeblood.
I’ve written my second novel, One Man Reservation, three times now, and a series of trusted readers have consistently given me the same feedback: more action, less thinking, and a more finessed sense of landscape. Since the book started out as memoir, it might be taking me longer than many people to get the required objectivity on the work (and which part of the dope-growing, pistol-wielding, student-kissing is true, I’m loathe to share).
Since much of the feedback concerns the action – or lack thereof – or thinking in the wrong places, I decided to take one big humble pill and do a search for certain words I sense I rely on too much. (See the note at the bottom of the page for specific directions on how to do this). Despite the chagrin I feel about STILL HAVING TO LEARN THIS ISSUE, I will share with you the sad, sad findings. Here’s the tic tally:
- “remember” 56 times
- “imagine” 43 times
- “thought” 89 times
- “think” 89 times
- “wonder” 45 times
- “reach” 45 times (Zane is often “reaching” toward other characters with her thoughts)
- “urge” 31 times
- “wonder” 25 times (oh, please, Zane – stop wondering!)
and the most startling finding:
-195 instances of felt (although I have yet to dig further and see how many of these are synonyms of touch)
I have worked through two of these tics, reducing “remember” to 11 and “imagine” to 6. This is only one small aspect of the required changes, but it’s a start.
And for a writing teacher that constantly encourage students to make sure to include a visceral quality in their work, I doubly cringe at this: in a draft that has over 68,000 words it appears there are only six tastes and one touch (but, again – maybe those are some of the “felt.” Please, let’s hope that’s what is going on). Refreshingly, there are 34 smells and 62 references to something being “heard.”
I’m grateful to the readers who slogged through all that thinking and feeling and imaging, humbled by their persistence in a narrative with so little action, decision, and consequences. And even if I didn’t feel beholden to the characters in One Man Reservation, I’d need to return to the work, revising, revising, revising, because of the faith shown to the work by these early readers. I’ll get rid of those tics, so the story can live more fully. So help me, I will.
(To complete your own tic findings, follow these steps:
1. In word, open up your document
2. Under the “edit” function, open the “find” option
3. Once this tab is open, choose “replace”
4. This will open up a window on the left-hand side of your document that allows you to search for specific words).
5. Have fun and take a few deep breaths to see what your patterns are.)
I’m grateful for health, but I’m sometimes hesitant to share this because so many people I know are facing deep challenges; I’m thinking of my sister and the ways MS continues to erode who she is. I know she wouldn’t wish her reality on anyone, but hers is a singular journey with many lessons, and one is: appreciate the body that we have, whatever size, shape, ability –“It’s a gift that gives to us again and again.”
I’m grateful for friendship—for the all the ways my friends sustain and inspire me, teach me how to live in the world with a more open heart.
I’m grateful for my family, for the ways we knit ourselves together despite all the fractures and the ways we’ve hurt each other.
I’m grateful for students, for their resilience and humor, for the bold and tentative ways they move into their own and each other’s writing, for the ways they teach me learning starts with listening.
I’m grateful for art, for the keenly phrased line, the evocative melody, the painting that reaches inside and re-arrange my relationship to myself and the world.
I’m grateful for the planet, with its heaving sighs and temperature drops, its piercing cold and magnificent heat. I’m grateful for the opportunity of landscape and sunset, hawk call and water way.
I’m grateful for language, for the ways it allows me to grow and connect and bury and understand.
I’m grateful for my husband and daughter, for the ways we laugh and play, the ways we learn and turn toward each other.
I am grateful.
How about you? I’d love to hear.
It’s taken me a while, but I’m reading Louis Owens work again – his novels, his scholarship, his careful observations about character and story and place. Since his death in 2002, I haven’t been willing to return to his writings because they amplified the absence brought by his sudden death. But, as a I embark on the fourth revision of One Man Reservation, the understanding comes that now is the time to return to his teachings, and in doing so, I’ve come to know that his mentorship can continue. He can still guide me to the truth yet unfolding in the work, if I pay careful attention.
Reading this line from The Sharpest Sight, “On the far rise a group of black angus were bunched like brushstrokes,” I am struck by the beauty of this image, of the way the words dance in our minds to marry art, livelihood, and landscape in a single sentence. After I make the necessary structural changes as well as deepen character, I will read One Man out loud, asking my ear and my eye to strive for the same kind of clarity that breathed life into Louis’ work.
Another line has taken a hold of my imagination and lingers as I move through my days, “He has managed to keep himself free of the worst evil by thinking in the oldest ways he knows.” In the context of The Sharpest Sight, this line has profound meaning for all of the characters, and for me, I can move my writing nearer to its fullest power by thinking in the oldest ways I know how. This means bringing a keener sense of the landscape into One Man. Hawk call and twilight hush, creek whisper and tree murmur are all part of the sensory inputs that make of the fiber of who I am and how I understand the world – these oldest ways of knowing will, I believe, take a well-meaning juvenile draft into a narrative that offers insight, precision, significance, and song.
Reading Louis’ work, I am reminded of his teachings about writing: he believed in my work most when I rendered the landscape with care and attention, when I tried to untangle the threads of family, identity, loss, and love, moving toward coherence by balancing the delicate lines that shape our world. Each day, I read more of his writing, taking notes and tuning in, moving toward the ways he believed in me.
I’d like to encourage you to consider reading: Write Free: Attracting the Creative Life by Jordan Rosenfeld and Becca Lawton. Exercises in this book helped lay the groundwork for the fundamental shift I’ve made from seeing Louis’ death as only tragic and paralyzing. Instead, I can see the gifts of his presence in my life, and now, with a return to his insights, I can find guidance and maybe even a little grace.
This morning, I took Caridad Svich to the airport: we talked about her trip to Cuba during the Clinton administration, what she saw, what she taught, what she’d like to return to see. Last night I had dinner with her and Amparo Garcia-Crow, and it was my privilege to listen to these amazing playwrights, songwriters, translators, women discuss their craft, their loves, their challenges and joys. Prior to dinner, Caridad gave a brilliant talk about her work, specifically her play about the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill, The Way of Water (and yes, I was a fan of the play before I heard her speak about it, simply because of the title).
My notes include from last night include:
-write outside yourself to know yourself
-write outside and inside yourself
-we have the means to tell the important stories
The third point really hit home: in this country, we have the means, the time, the latitude, the camaraderie, to delve into what really matters. For Caridad, this means an exploration of activism and artistry and the very important choice of whom we choose to put at the center of our work. In The Way of Water, two primary characters are fishermen, men raised on the Gulf, now poisoned by the spill. With no interest in leaving what has become a deep connection to the water that informs their lives, one of them faces his impending death with a clarity and insight that makes the heart break – with the true eloquence of the vernacular, the play gives us the human struggle still unfolding along the Gulf. In June 2012, a NoPassport theatre alliance international reading scheme for the play sustained 50 readings between April 3-June 4. In real time, actors and directors across the globe engaged in this work, diving into the material with a passion and a commitment, blogging regularly to sustain one another.
We have the means to tell the stories that matter, to reach inside our readers and engage the empathy muscle. I will remember this as I revise and as I teach. Storytelling matters – it’s part of us, and it might be the necessary means to weave our world together to create a more coherent narrative for all.
Amparo Garcia-Crow is the host of The Living Room: Storytime for Grownups, which takes places the first Saturday of each month at Galaxy Studios.
It’s been a busy ten days – one radio interview, one delayed letter from Jayne Anne Phillips, one book reading in Austin, one book launch in Maryland, a gathering of many family and friends in both locations. And underneath it all, an incredible sense of thankfulness. It’s still such a surprise – to have By Way of Water be in the world again, to be in the company of so many fine writers published by Santa Fe Writers Project. For me, it underscores the importance of being in this writing game for the long haul, for the ways a story one believes in might have resonance across time and space. The re-printing allows me to connect in a different way to writing. There’s a room where I keep my faith in my abilities, and now the door is nudged open a little wider. I’m not saying the reprint is essential for my continued work on novels; instead, it allows a deeper, broader aspect of myself to commit to the books I know live inside me and are yet unwritten.
I think of Tim O’Brien’s final story in The Things They Carried. “The Lives of the Dead” opens with this line, “But this too is true: stories can save us.” O’Brien weaves young Timmy’s experience with death, along with older Tim’s many encounters with death in the Vietnam war, into a marvelous exploration of why stories matter. Late in the story, Timmy’s deceased girlfriend answers his question about what is it like to dead by stating that it’s like being in a book that no one is reading:
An old one. It’s up on a library shelf, so you’re safe and everything, but the book hasn’t been
checked out for a long, long time. All you can do is wait. Just hope somebody’ll pick it up and
I started writing because my grandfather, my source of unconditional love, was killed by a drunk driver. I missed him and I wanted him back. Even though I didn’t have words for it at the time, I wanted to capture some of his spirit before it faded away; I wanted by some force of magic to make him live again. Again, O’Brien articulates how storytelling is the kind of magic I needed:
The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream
along with you, and in this way, memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits
in the head. There is an illusion of aliveness.
Andrew Gifford and the Santa Fe Writers Project are bringing back to life so much for me –
There’s a book to be taken down from the shelf when someone has the interest, and that’s a gift in so many ways. How can I say thank you enough for allowing others to dream and imagine with me, to let the fullness of my grandfather live and breathe and climb trees and play music? In Cherokee, we say, Wado.
As some of you know, By Way of Water won a cool prize in 2001. Dreux and I were on a six-week road trip, and I received notification of the prize via email. I never received the letter that Jayne Ann Phillips wrote about why she chose the work. Today, it came via the generous Andrew Gifford and the Santa Fe Writers Project.
I hope it helps all of us writers and especially us novelists have a little more faith while we toil in the landscape of narrative.
May 25, 2002
Dear Ms. Gullick,
It is a distinct pleasure to write this letter with the news that your outstanding entry, By Way of Water, has been selected as the recipient of the Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards 2001 grand prize.
By Way of Water stood out clearly, and with exquisite beauty. In reading your work, I was moved by your voice and your ability as an author. I congratulate you not only on excellence in writing, but on your continuing success. I look forward to seeing By Way of Water on the shelves at the end of the summer and there is no doubt in my mind that you are headed for a strong and exciting career.
The evocative realization of your characters – their voice, how you carry them – brings the reader deep into the world you have created. The pattern and flow of life is represented by the people you have brought to us and the voices you have made. Your clarity of vision let me know immediately that I was in the company of an authentic author.
The Writer’s Project prides itself on seeking out excellence in writing and your award is much deserved. You’re writing possesses a potency that was a pleasure for me to review and judge.
Again, my warmest congratulations on this success. I wish you all the best.
Jayne Anne Phillips
“Earning the Write” will be an on-going series of posts. I have much to say and explore when it comes to the subject of poverty and writing, the writer’s “right,” and the role of narrative in bridging the gap between different socio-economic classes as well as different parts of the self.
Of course, there are many wonderful allegories underscoring the power and importance of storytelling, with my favorite being Frederick by Leo Lionni. If you don’t know this story, it’s a gem, worth your time because of both its message and its artwork. I am grateful to my friend Aisha for introducing me to this story, even reading it to me on a particularly low day. Frederick, a mouse, collects the colors and the warmth of the summer while the other mice collect food for the winter. Then, during the darkest moments of the winter, when the food has run out, Frederick sustains them with stories he saved. It illustrates of the value of the storyteller in society and how story helps sustain us. To be able to tell a good story is both a gift and a responsibility.
I think of a writer I saw read at The Tattered Cover in Denver, Daniel Villasenor, who had recently been a Stegner Fellow at Stanford’s Creative Writing Program. He felt as though too many of his fellow writers were focused on the fact that they had been accepted into the program, rather than on what their contributions might be. Daniel asserted that writers need to think foremost about their contribution, not just their right to write. This statement resonated so deeply with me. Maybe it’s my working class background, but I believe writers must work diligently on their craft as part of their contribution. And then they need to take it a step further. They need to find a way to improve their communities – perhaps in the form of volunteering, formal or informal mentorship, or organizing events in their area. Earning the write can happen in many forms.
It is possible that being an active member in a community could help offset the ways a writer can slide so easily into isolation. The solitude required to create work can become a cloak of negative seclusion. Getting out in the larger world, helping others, is key to one’s own mental health and to balancing the role of the storyteller. Maybe we could shift into weaving ourselves into a community that needs us, like Frederick.