Waiting for the Answer, by Louise DeSalvo

April 1, 2010

A short post.  Based on something that happened this morning that I’ve observed before and that I think might be useful to others who are writing lives.

Yesterday I took a day off from my project.  I had finished a good enough draft (nearly ready, I think) of what might be the prologue of my father book.  Those transitions – when we’re finished with one chunk and want to move on to something else – are hard for me because I work organically (a blessing and a curse, as is any way we work; a blessing because I get to material I didn’t expect; a curse because I’m often unsure where I am or what I’m doing).  I had that unsettled feeling that is an occupational hazard of writing.  And when I get that, I usually feel out of sorts, and, well, angry.

This morning I did aerobic exercise (a Leslie Sansone tape – I adore her walking tapes).  “Smile,” my husband said to me as he passed and noticed the glowering look on my face.

“If you smile, you’ll feel better.”  I listened to him – I’d read the same studies he had about changing our state by forcing ourselves to smile.  By the end of my half hour, I felt better, but not completely.  I wanted to work on my book today, but couldn’t figure out what to work on next.

Then, in the shower, there it was, a way to move forward.  I “saw” that I should marry something I’ve sketched provisionally in my process journal for this book (a dream about my father driving a PT boat during WWII, with me hanging on to the side, being dragged through water) to the piece I’ve recently finished (my swim across Lake George as a teenager when he was, shall we say, less than the ideal father).

And then I felt great.  Finished showering, dressed (nicely), came to my desk, and decided to share this before moving to the work on my book.

I decided to share this right now because there have been two things I’ve noticed over time about what I experienced that others might find useful.  The first, and perhaps the most important, is that we can’t rush esthetic resolutions, we can’t force them.  We can ponder them; we can write about probable solutions in our process journals.  But the authentic resolution to the esthetic problem we’ve set up in our work can’t be forced.  The second thing I’ve noticed around this issue about knowing what the next step should be is that we can develop a bodily awareness of where we are and, so, not beat ourselves up because we’re not where we want to be but aren’t.

I’ve come to realize that when I want to move forward, and don’t know quite what to do in my work, I feel out of sorts.  What I try (and don’t often) remember is that the unsettled feeling is a necessary prelude to the Gestalter “click” that happens when the solution to what I need to do percolates up into my awareness.

That often happens when I’m doing routine things – showering, doing laundry, straightening up the house, just like people who’ve studied the creative process have learned.  It’s as if we have to let go of trying to find the solution to our creative challenges in order to learn what they need to be.

Then, when they do trickle up into our consciousness, the important thing is to learn to recognize that it’s happened.  (I’ve known writers who’ve discounted these presents that have come to them.)  And not to argue with what we’ve learned needs doing.  I’d planned on using that PT dream elsewhere – at the end of the book.  That never felt wrong; it just never felt absolutely right.  But when, in the shower, that voice in my head said, “Do PT boat dream now; put it at the end of the Lake George stuff” – and that’s what I heard – it felt absolutely right.  I recognized it because, through the years, I’ve learned what that bodily awareness feels like.

When that happens, it comes as a surprise.  And because it’s a surprise, a stretch for me as a writer, I know I’m pushing into new territory.  That’s what I always want to do – learn more about how to work, try something I’ve not done before.

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