Please Do Not Disturb: That’s how I’ve felt these past few months, and even more so these past few weeks, so immersed in the work of finishing up my second novel, that I can’t spare the time to do anything else. And when I must take time away, I feel somewhat distraught or guilty, as if I’m cheating on a lover, or playing hooky from school. Even writing this now, feels like that, although I’ve been working eight hours straight since this morning.
I do this 7 days a week now and am making enormous progress. So I’m not complaining. I’m happy, if exhausted, at the end of the day, and looking forward to the next day of writing—revising mostly now, polishing, tying up loose ends, getting it ready to send off. My husband can’t understand how I can feel so exhausted sitting in a chair all day! It’s mental exhaustion, I try to explain. My mind feels washed out after 8 hours.
Even so, it feels good. There were many years when my problem with writing was the inability to find the time to write or the discipline to stay with it so long. So this is progress.
I wrote another blog post a few years ago about being “Immersed In One’s Art” using the same image of Frankenthaler. This is what I wrote then:
There’s something immensely satisfying to see Helen Frankenthaler immersed in her art this way. I found this image on Facebook, along with the following quotation:
“I’ve seen women insist on cleaning everything in the house before they could sit down to write . . . and you know it’s a funny thing about housecleaning . . . it never comes to an end. Perfect way to stop a woman. A woman must be careful to not allow over-responsibility (or over-respectabilty) to steal her necessary creative rests, riffs, and raptures. She simply must put her foot down and say no to half of what she believes she ‘should’ be doing. Art is not meant to be created in stolen moments only.” ― Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Why is it we women (is it only women?) too often put our personal passions last in line behind all else?
I’m trying more and more to put those passions (my writing, painting, music-making) first on my list of to-do’s. But it’s hard. Somehow even blogging comes first, although it too is writing, a kind of art-making. Or at least I try to make it so.
Perhaps because I’ve set firmer deadlines for my blog, or I see it as a commitment I’ve made, to keep this up and running, to not let readers go too long without hearing from me. And blogging is just another way for me to “riff and rapture” about the things I love, to share what inspires me with the world.
Still, to imagine myself immersed in my art as she is in this photo, surrounded by bright splashes of color, my bare legs curled beneath me on the cold floor, and that Mona Lisa smile, that dark gaze . . . it does my heart good.
Yes, it does do my heart good, to be immersed in my writing this way—Finally. But it means I’ve been blogging less these days and will probably be doing less in the coming weeks as well. But I’ll be back to “riff and rapture” again before long. I promise.
Story-telling is in our bones. It rises through us like sap through roots and leaves into the air. It began when galaxies spun star-dust into the atoms that spin still through our bodies, reminding us that the stories of our births go back eons and stretch far away into a future we are spinning still.
The poem below by Lisel Mueller says it all, and inspired this post.
Why We Tell Stories
I Because we used to have leaves and on damp days our muscles feel a tug, painful now, from when roots pulled us into the ground
and because our children believe they can fly, an instinct retained from when the bones in our arms were shaped like zithers and broke neatly under their feathers
and because before we had lungs we knew how far it was to the bottom as we floated open-eyed like painted scarves through the scenery of dreams, and because we awakened
and learned to speak
2 We sat by the fire in our caves, and because we were poor, we made up a tale about a treasure mountain that would open only for us
and because we were always defeated, we invented impossible riddles only we could solve, monsters only we could kill, women who could love no one else and because we had survived sisters and brothers, daughters and sons, we discovered bones that rose from the dark earth and sang as white birds in the trees
3 Because the story of our life becomes our life
Because each of us tells the same story but tells it differently
and none of us tells it the same way twice
Because grandmothers looking like spiders want to enchant the children and grandfathers need to convince us what happened happened because of them
and though we listen only haphazardly, with one ear, we will begin our story with the word and …
Lisel Mueller, Alive Together: New and Selected Poems. (LSU Press October 1, 1996)
I’m working again on that novel I wrote about in The White Hot Flow of Writing some time ago. I feels good to be back in the saddle after that long interval. I’m making good progress so far, putting in 30 hours of writing a week, or more if you count the reading research, of which there is plenty. I enjoy the research almost as much as the writing.
I started in again with the intention to write one full draft and one full revision in one year. It’s more of an experiment, actually. To see if it’s possible, especially with a historical novel set in Central America in the 70’s during all the political unrest and guerrilla warfare going on at that time.
In the White Hot Flow post, I wrote in more detail about the characters and plot, and especially more about my writing process, which I’ve copied in part below. It remains pretty much the same process as now, even after such a long break.
First there’s a germ of an idea, and then the need to anchor it in reality. The need to immerse myself in some aspect of the history, the setting, the geography, the larger ideas that underpin what I’m aiming to write: Research.
( I’m still researching now, and that “germ” keeps growing the more I learn.)
Next in the process comes the need to discover the names and voices of my main characters. I cannot write a word without that. This almost happens simultaneously. The voices must have names to embody them, the names must have voices to bring the alive. The names evoke the voices, the voices evoke the names: Lena and Raoul.
(This remains the same, although the list of names grow as I add characters. within out their name, how can I embody them?)
Once I have these, there’s no stopping them. They take over my life. They start telling me their stories and I run and grab a pen. I keep on writing, pages after pages in my notebook and on my computer. I look up and morning has turned to nightfall. It doesn’t matter. They follow me to bed. I sleep with them. I dream them. I wake up writing love poems in their voices.
(Yes, this is the sweet spot, the white, hot flow of writing, and I still have mornings where I sit in bed till noon with my yellow writing pad and blue pen, taking dictation from my characters.)
Then I need at least a vague sense of how the novel will open, how it will close. It may change along the way, but I need this parenthesis to contain my writing and to show me where it’s moving. They tell me.
When I have the beginning and the ending, keys scenes in between emerge. I write them down quickly before they disappear. They may change over time, but at least I have key points upon which to hang my novel.
By then my characters have become real to me. They have flesh and bone, names, voices, histories. They have deep, deep urges, conflicting desires, inner and outer struggles, a sense of transformation.
It’s like watching a miracle unfold. How they seem to come from nowhere, out of thin air, then suddenly they are breathing bodies, passionate, possessed.
(It still feels that way.)
Eventually I had so many handwritten scenes and research notes and ideas I had to organize them into folders of where they will fall in the novel, which I’ve divided now into 5 parts.
Now I’m in the messy process of inputting the raw material into word documents and shaping them into actual chapters. This is the hard work of writing—not flow, but fits and starts and stops: slowing down when I hit a snag, reversing course as I try out a new plotting strategy, or staring blankly at the screen as I try to reimagine how a scene could unfold. Sometimes I stop to do more research, or put on a load of laundry to give myself a break, or take a walk to clear my head. I take a notebook with me where ever I go in case the dam breaks and the words start flowing again.
But it’s all good, even when the little trolls in my head start complaining: Isn’t this a bit too ambitious? Do you think you might have bitten off more than you can chew? Do you really want to be a slave to this novel for the next year, or two, or whatever it takes? No, no, and yes, I reply.
I chose this. For now. And I’m loving it, even the hard work and crazy-making of the fits and stops and starts of the writing process, as well as the white, hot flow.
Lena and Raoul deserve to have their story told, and who is there to do it but me? I’m writing the kind of novel I would love to read, and even if no one reads it but me, well, that may just be enough.
Last week I was questioning whether my blog had become too serious. To even ask such a question, of course, reveals one’s insecurities—about myself, about my blog, about my own serious take on life. Which is what humor does best. It pokes fun at ourselves, helps us to back away and take a longer view, a lighter view, about whatever is troubling us.
In one of the humorous posts links I shared with you last week, about bears and death, I was poking fun at some very strange, troubling dreams I’d been having lately. By the time I had finished writing the post, that sense of fear and anxiety had ebbed away in laughter. The second link poked fun at the mixed feelings I had when “selling my babies,” short stories I had labored over for so long. Making fun of those anxieties helped me to not take myself or my stories so seriously.
This isn’t the first time I’ve questioned how serious my posts had become and wondered if I should lighten up. In 2014 I humorously dissected the whole Serious VS Humor dilemma. Rereading it recently is helping me again to make peace with myself. So I thought I’d rerun it here for other bloggers who wonder if they should hu-more or less. Enjoy!
Humor, It’s Serious Stuff
Recently I’ve come across several blogs that use humor (the ironic, tongue-in-cheek, tending toward the ludic, the whimsical, the carnivalesque) to great effect. And I’ve been thoroughly enjoying them. But it’s made me realize how serious my blog has come to sound, and to question that.
I’m not sure I want to change it. But perhaps I need to diffuse it now and again. For I fully realize all this seriousness is seriously undercut by the great jest played on all of us: we really don’t know what the hell we’re doing and if any of this (me, you, life, blogging, etc.) matters at all.
Serious is my milieu. I feel more comfortable swimming there. With Serious I joyously jump head first into the deep end. I do backflips from the high dive. With Humor I test the pool with my toe. I find the steps and go down slowly. I keep my head above the water.
Perhaps that’s why people who know me well comment on my “gentle sense of humor”. I used to take that as a compliment, meaning “not unkind” or “unassuming.” Not loud or obvious.
But it could just as well mean “unassertive,” or even just plain “wimpy.”
This could be true. I am shy. I don’t tend to flaunt or assert myself in crowds or public conversations. You would never call me the life of the party. I don’t leave people in stitches or elicit belly laughs. I stand in the shadows. I observe. I take note. And occasionally I let loose a zinger or a well-placed (gentle) barb.
I tease. I poke. I play. At the edges.
It’s the way I diffuse all the seriousness that comes more naturally to me. Playing with things—-people, ideas, words, life.
Humor, after all, is the great diffuser. It reminds us not to take ourselves, or each other, or life itself so seriously all the time. It lightens, softens, disperses, deflects the serious side of life that can, quite literally, crush us under its weight if we’re not careful.
That is humor’s great gift, why it is so needed, and so welcomed. Everyone loves humor. Serious, not so much.
Humor makes you feel good. It lights up your endorphins. It puts a smile on your face and a giggle in your heart. It can even make cancer cells go into remission, or so they say.
Serious is not so warmly welcomed. It’s viewed as suspect and makes you wary. You frown and say things like “Say what?” and “Get outa here.” It gives you heartburn and indigestion. Your head starts spinning, your eyes glaze over. You start looking for the door.
That’s the risky side of Serious. You splay yourself open, heart and soul, for the whole world to view.
Serious is like streaking down your old high school hallways naked. Humor is safer. It wears a helmet and shoulder pads and carries a hockey stick. People back away. They let you pass.
Being Serious is like burying yourself in sand with only your head sticking up. Anyone can ride by with a large stick or sharp sword and lop it off. Humor often carries that sword.
Which brings us to the dark side of humor and its soft underbelly. Humor can be a weapon. And it can hurt.
But more often what humor, the great diffuser, is diffusing or deflecting, is our own insecurities and uncertainties, our fear of the unknown and unanswerable. Humor is a way to keep people at arm length, unsure how to take us, afraid to challenge us. It can help us avoid the serious stuff and make others less likely to talk seriously to us.
Humor also can be a cop-out. It allows us to say, if challenged: But I was only kidding!
If people don’t know whether to take us seriously or not, they might tend to back down, back off, pull their punches, reserve judgment. And they may do so because they want to avoid that zinger or well-placed and not-so-gentle barb we are prone to fling when challenged. They don’t want to become the brunt of our jokes.
The best humor though is serious stuff.
It isn’t used to harm others or to protect ourselves, but to expose ourselves and our society to critical examination.
Humor holds up a mirror so we can see ourselves more clearly, including all our faults and foibles. It makes us laugh at ourselves, our families, our society, our leaders, our politics, our lives, in a way that’s helpful and healing.
It reveals the hypocrisy and vanity, the pettiness and meanness, in a fun way. We feel the sharpness when it strikes too close to home, but we laugh anyway.
And by laughing at our faults, we are more likely, perhaps, to find ways to be and do better. That’s what I love about humor. Being able to laugh at myself. It’s so freeing!
Being buried in the sand up to your ears is no picnic!
I keep thinking about that head-lopping image I used earlier. That poor helpless fool, buried up to her ears in all that serious sand she finds so important, and WOP! There goes her head bouncing down the beach.
That’s me! My head bouncing down that beach, blood squirting everywhere, and I’m thinking, “My God, What did I do? Why did I stick my head out like that? Why the f— did I take myself so seriously?”
But then I have to laugh. Because I realize: This is just a metaphor!
Right about then, another head comes rolling along, the head-lopping Joker’s.
“What happened to you!” I ask.
“Seems I was taking myself way too seriously too!” he replies.
Then we both have a good, serious laugh, rolling down the beach together.
I’ve been struggling to find something to blog about this week. Actually I spent half a day yesterday working on a poem I wanted to get out. But it just didn’t feel ready yet. It’s tentatively, intriguingly titled “Forgive Me My Whiteness,” or less intriguingly, “A Prayer for Peace and Justice.” About race, I’m sure you’ve guessed. But do any of my readers really want to read a poem about race? By a white woman?
This raises the thorny question, of course: For whom do I blog? You, or me, or a little of both? I’m quite keen on the poem so I’ll probably post it eventually when it’s “done.” So there’s that.
Then I started looking back through my archives for inspiration. Maybe I could find something to tweak and repost. That’s always an easy fix when I’m stuck. But I’ve been doing that quite a bit lately, and if you do it too much, it feels like cheating. So drats to that.
During my search I did find a couple of humorous posts I wrote back in May 2014 that I enjoyed. I don’t do enough humor. I’d like to do more. I think that’s why I’m struggling to blog. Lately it’s all been soooo serious—introspective, philosophical, spiritual. I write where my head is, and that’s where it spends a lot of time these days. It’s not a bad place to hang out, actually. In fact, I rather enjoy it. But then I get to feeling sorry for my readers. Do you really want to read this stuff? All the time?!
So instead of blogging a poem about race, or one about linear and nonlinear ways of thinking that I’m working on, or another I’m keen to write about David Boehm’s theory on the Implicate and Explicate Orders (quantum theory + enlightment, yikes!), I’m going to go easy on you this week.
I’ll just post these links to two fun posts I wrote six years ago. When I was, it appears, a more fun person.
My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer I begin to feel a new tenderness toward you, very raw and unfamiliar, like what I remember of love when I was young —
love that was so often foolish in its objectives but never in its choices, its intensities Too much demanded in advance, too much that could not be promised —
My soul has been so fearful, so violent; forgive its brutality. As though it were that soul, my hand moves over you cautiously,
not wishing to give offense but eager, finally, to achieve expression as substance: it is not the earth I will miss, it is you I will miss.
A New Beginning for Our Ending
I too feel a new tenderness toward this body that holds me so tenderly in return, within its soft, wide confines. That moves me and moves with me wherever I go. That holds within all that I am, memories and emotions that ebb and flow, that mere touch, taste, scent, releases. And even now, after all this time together, when a foot or knee fails, when bones creak and muscles sigh, and the weight of you seems too much to bear, still, still, you gather me in your arms. You hold me near, breathe me in, lift me up, and lay me down. You try so hard to be what I need, to do what needs doing. Too often I have railed against you, dismissed you, disowned you. Let me see you now as friend, as lover, as mother. As dear to me as sky and earth and tree and sea. Let me cherish you as you have cherished me, and when the end comes, let us rest and rise together.
I’m still trying to understand why this poem moves me so much, and thought maybe you can help.
And What Good Will Your Vanity Be When The Rapture Comes
says the man with a cart of empty bottles at the corner of church and lincoln while I stare into my phone and I say I know oh I know while trying to find the specific filter that will make the sun’s near-flawless descent look
the way I might describe it in a poem and the man says the moment is already right in front of you and I say I know but everyone I love is not here and I mean here like on this street corner with me while I turn
the sky a darker shade of red on my phone and I mean here like everyone I love who I can still touch and not pass my fingers through like the wind in a dream but I look up at the man and he is a kaleidoscope
of shadows I mean his shadows have shadows and they are small and trailing behind him and I know then that everyone he loves is also not here and the man doesn’t ask but I still say hey man I’ve got nothing I’ve got nothing even though I have plenty
to go home to and the sun is still hot even in its endless flirt with submission and the man’s palm has a small river inside I mean he has taken my hand now and here we are tethered and unmoving and the man says what color are you making
the sky and I say what I might say in a poem I say all surrender ends in blood and he says what color are you making the sky and I say something bright enough to make people wish they were here and he squints towards the dancing shrapnel of dying
light along a rooftop and he says I love things only as they are and I’m sure I did once too but I can’t prove it to anyone these days and he says the end isn’t always about what dies and I know I know or I knew once and now I write about beautiful things
like I will never touch a beautiful thing again and the man looks me in the eyes and he points to the blue-orange vault over heaven’s gates and he says the face of everyone you miss is up there and I know I know I can’t see them but I know
and he turns my face to the horizon and he says we don’t have much time left and I get that he means the time before the sun is finally through with its daily work or I think I get that but I still can’t stop trembling and I close
my eyes and I am sobbing on the corner of church and lincoln and when I open my eyes the sun is plucking everyone who has chosen to love me from the clouds and carrying them into the light-drunk horizon and I am seeing this and I know
I am seeing this the girl who kissed me as a boy in the dairy aisle of meijer while our parents shopped and the older boy on the basketball team who taught me how to make a good fist and swing it into the jaw of a bully and the friends who crawled to my porch
in the summer of any year I have been alive they were all there I saw their faces and it was like I was given the eyes of a newborn again and once you know what it is to be lonely it is hard to unsee that which serves as a reminder that you were not always
empty and I am gasping into the now-dark air and I pull my shirt up to wipe whatever tears are left and I see the man walking in the other direction and I chase him down and tap his arm and I say did you see it did you see it like I did and he turns and leans into the
glow of a streetlamp and he is anchored by a single shadow now and he sneers and he says have we met and he scoffs and pushes his cart off into the night and I can hear the glass rattling even as I watch him become small and vanish and I look down at my
phone and the sky on the screen is still blood red.
It starts out as just an ordinary encounter on a street corner and kaleidoscopes into something quite different. The narrator is preoccupied with his phone, with enhancing an image of a sunset to show off to others. When approached by a homeless man preoccupied with the coming rapture, he fakes empathy, saying “I know I know”, but not really knowing, not really caring. He continues to humor the man by saying, in essence, yes, I know, the rapture is coming, but since all my people aren’t here, I’m not really ready for it right now.
And it’s at this point the poem shifts from the real to the surreal, the homeless guy before him kaleidoscopes into something else, and takes hold of the narrator’s hand. Now they are “tethered and unmoving.”
From here until the end is a dreamlike episode, where poignant moments and phrases seem to flow, one after the other, like that river flowing from the man’s palm: the sun’s “endless flirt with submission,” “I love things only as they are,” “the end isn’t always about what dies,” “now I write about beautiful things like I will never touch a beautiful thing again,” and “the face of everyone you miss is up there.”
By now the narrator is trembling and sobbing. He keeps saying “I know, I know, or I knew once,” as if he’s forgotten the things he should know. And then comes this vision: “when I open my eyes the sun is plucking everyone who has chosen to love me from the clouds and carrying them into the light-drunk horizon and I am seeing this and I know”. He sees all these faces and precious moments from his past and says: ” it was like I was given the eyes of a newborn again.” Then he adds “once you know what it is to be lonely it is hard to unsee that which serves as a reminder that you were not always empty.”
After this vision and revelation, the scene devolves back into an ordinary street scene. The homeless man, when asked, apparently has not seen what he saw. He scornfully pushes the narrator away, and continues his journey into the night with his cart full of empty bottles.
I’m still struggling to put into words what moves me, but it’s in the images I’ve highlighted above, and the refrain “I know I know or I knew once.” It’s in that feeling that things aren’t really as they seem to be, they are so much more; and also in the fact that all we really want or need is already right here before us, if only we had eyes to see.
It’s in that coalescing of the real and surreal, the now and forever, the ordinary and extraordinary, and how they morph back and forth, dreamlike and elusive. It’s in that eternal yearning for “something more,” and, at the same time, the need to surrender to what is. To let that “dancing shrapnel” of light break us apart so we are open to this moment, right here, before us.
There’s so much more to say about this poem, and I’d be really interested in knowing what you think.
The constant reference to a poem is interesting too, making this a kind of meta-poem. The narrator himself is a poet it seems. And I wonder, does the act of writing (my writing this post, his writing that poem) does it take us out of the moment or deeper into it? And when I say “moment” do I mean what is happening right now in this room and outside my window as I write, or what is going on in my head and heart as I write quite unaware of my surroundings? Are they the same moment? Or are each part of a kaleidoscopic now, moments within moments?
The word “rapture” is mentioned only once, but referred to again and again, and perhaps the title of this post, “the rapture is already right in front of us,” comes closest to capturing what I take away from reading this poem. The rapture not referring to the Biblical sense of people being plucked off the streets into heaven, but to the ecstatic joy that lies just out of sight within the present moment, if only we have eyes to see.
Many thanks to The Vale of Soul-Making for introducing me to this poem and poet. And many thanks for the painting by Robert Roth that captures without words what I really wanted to say here.
One of my favorite poets, again, swept me off my feet, expressing the inexpressible with perfect eloquence.
And it was at that age … poetry arrived in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where it came from, from winter or a river. I don’t know how or when, no, they were not voices, they were not words, nor silence, but from a street I was summoned from the branches of night, abruptly from the others, among violent fires or returning alone, there I was, without a face, and it touched me.
I didn’t know what to say, my mouth had no way with names, my eyes were blind. And something started in my soul, fever or forgotten wings, and I made my own way, deciphering that fire, and I wrote the first, faint line, faint, without substance, pure nonsense, pure wisdom of someone who knows nothing; and suddenly I saw the heavens unfastened and open, planets, palpitating plantations, shadow perforated, riddled with arrows, fire, and flowers, the winding night, the universe.
And I, infinitesimal being, drunk with the great starry void, likeness, image of mystery, felt myself a pure part of the abyss. I wheeled with the stars.
My heart broke loose on the wind. Pablo Neruda, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, trans. W.S. Merwin (Penguin Classics, 2004)
Illustration by Dorothy Lathrop 1891 – 1980 Stars, 1930, ink on illustration board. Illustration for Sarah Teasdale, Stars Tonight, New York: Macmillan Company, 1930.