May 15, 2016
Recently I was asked why so many books about writing tell you not to judge your work and just do your work when in fact to get to the end of a project we need to make so very many decisions. Right now for instance I am organizing some essays I’ve written over the years into book form. I’m in the process of deciding whether the beginning of a piece overlaps too much with material I’ve described in an essay I’ve placed earlier (about my father wanting to throw away a lot of family memorabilia). Surely that’s a judgment I have to make in that I have to make a decision about it. So what’s this about not judging?
For one thing, when we’re beginning a piece, say, the question of how much information belongs and how much can be deleted is best left alone until way later in the process. So at the beginning it is surely more helpful is to just get a lot of language on the page and to trust that through our many revisions we’ll be able to see what needs to be done as we respond to the words on the page. It’s tough to describe this process but it feels pretty much automatic. There’s a sense that something’s not working and then the editor self takes over and makes a change. So in fact we seem to be making judgments all the time, but perhaps it’s more germane to say we’re assessing what’s on the page against some ideal in our head and making changes that at some level we understand will benefit the piece or more accurately state our intention.
I think the easiest way to explain this business of not judging is to say that a certain kind of judging our work will likely stall our project. And I hear A lot of it from my students. “This stinks.” “The middle is a mess.” Then there are the judgments we make about the worth of the self, the writer, even though they may not sound like they’re about the self but a statement of fact. “I’m no good at this.” “I’ll never get this done.” “I don’t have time.” “I have no idea about what to do.”
I always invite the writers I work with to ask whether the statements they make are useful, whether they will aid in the composition of the work, and if the answer is “No” I exercise my teacherly prerogative and indicate that I’d like them to transform the utterance into one that gives the writer something to do.
“This stinks” clearly doesn’t help. But “This piece isn’t saying what I want it to say” does. That is, I think that in writing we need to evaluate our work in ways that give us the next thing to do with it. In the example of my work given above, it would go like this: “Reread all instances where this moment is described. Decide whether to trim or eliminate later instances and revise accordingly. Sometimes it makes sense to write the directions we give ourselves down.
In the “It stinks” example, the writer might ask him/herself to identify whatever is working and whatever isn’t. And then to take each instance of what isn’t yet working and work with it, continually asking “Precisely what doesn’t work” along the way.
A writing friend of mine is near the end of revising her book and she’s come to a chapter where there is a time shift. She’s asked herself whether she’s let the reader know enough about how she’s changed. (That’s making an important assessment of the work appropriate at this stage of the process.) Note that she didn’t say the chapter stinks or it’s no good but she stated in neutral language something she has to evaluate and decide. If she decides the reader needs more back story , then she has another job: to figure out how to do it.
So the most useful statements we can make about our work are ones that help us solve the creative challenges we ourselves have made. Then writing becomes nothing more, nothing less than creative problem solving.
February 11, 2016
A few days ago I had one of those meltdowns that often accompany acute or chronic illnesses. I’d tried hard to be in the moment with where I am in my life right now. I’d read—and tried to apply—Toni Bernhard’s wisdom (derived from Buddhist thought) in her wonderful books, How to Be Sick and How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide. Bernhard tells us that these meltdowns are normal and that, when they occur, we need to be empathic towards ourselves rather than self-critical. And I was trying to do this, but none too successfully.
At the heart of my despair was my sorrow for all the losses that living with illness entails: teaching; giving up a country house where I no doubt had contracted this disease; travelling; going to museums; socializing; spontaneity; writing, except for a very short time each day, and sometimes not at all.
It was Monday when I bottomed out, and not for the first time, and Monday is the day when my writing partner, Edi, and I check in with one another about how our work is progressing. She is in the final stages of another draft of her memoir—close to the end of this phase, but still drafting new and wonderful material about her life as a young woman in Sicily. And I am writing—or rather, trying to write—towards the book about my sister’s suicide when and for however long I can.
But the week before had been very difficult. Once a month I have to take Tindamax, in addition to all the other medications I take, including an IV antibiotic. Those of us being treated for Lyme Disease call this “the drug from hell” because if the Lyme is still present, it reactivates all our symptoms, and we feel much, much worse—the “cure” for this disease is sometimes very hard. During this Tindamax week, I’d spent more time than usual in bed, and in the bath (doused with Epsom Salts which help with pain). I hadn’t completed one of mini essays for my book in over a month, and about this, I was bereft. So that when Edi and I began our talk I asked if I could go first. And I did, and just wailed in despair because I couldn’t get to my writing.
What Edi said was this, and I offer you her wisdom because it was so helpful to me.
She asked me if I remembered when, after she’d earned her certificate to teach yoga, she’d injured herself, and couldn’t do any yoga at all. And, yes, I recalled this loss. She’d started integrating yoga into the teaching of writing, and she was thrilled at the prospect of investigating how to apply this to her ongoing work as a teacher.
“All I did each day,” Edi said, “all I could do was go to the yoga mat and just sit there or lie there. But I did it every day, and somehow it helped, and slowly, in time, I could do a little, and then a little bit more. But just sitting there was a tremendous comfort.
“So just go to your desk and sit there,” Edi continued, “for a very short time. You don’t have to write; you don’t have to do anything. All you have to do is sit for as long or as short a time as you choose.” (For those of us, like Toni Bernhard, who must write in bed because of illness, that might mean gathering some writing tools–notebook, pen–and take them to bed with us even though we might not yet use them.)
The yoga mat. The desk. The places where, Edi and I agree, we feel centered. And that was/is another of the losses that come with chronic illness: feeling centered.
So I did what Edi instructed me to do. I went to my desk, and as awful as I felt, a certain peace was present in my just sitting there. I ran my fingers over the keyboard, looked out the window and saw a bird in the tree outside, watched the neighboring children trudge to the bus stop on the corner carrying far too much in their overstuffed backpacks.
And not the first day, but on the second, I did write. And the first thing I wrote was a little hundred-word piece (more about that in another post) about a telephone call my sister might have made just before she died.
Edi was right. And I offer you her wisdom. During those times when the words don’t come, during those times when we have precious little energy or moments to devote to our work, just sitting in those spaces can be a source of comfort and joy. And sometimes, just sitting can help us break the silence that prevails even during difficult circumstances.
February 2, 2016
Throughout my writing life, I’ve tried–and often failed–to maintain a balanced attitude towards my writing. Tried to read the work I’ve produced with enough detachment to make judgments about what needs doing (or perhaps it’s more apt to say “make assessments”) without getting hung up about the worth of the work.
So often in the classes I teach, I have to talk students down off the judgment ledge. “This stinks.” “This is awful.” “I hate it.” “I’m going to tear it up because it’s no good.”
I know what it’s like to have those feelings. But when I do–and when my students do–I remind them that their thoughts are just thoughts, their feelings are just feelings, and that they don’t necessarily have any truth functional value. That is, just because we say “This stinks” doesn’t mean that it does. And just because we feel “I hate it” doesn’t mean that the work in process isn’t good enough for the stage it’s at or doesn’t have the potential to become a fine work of art.
I tell my students, “Our job is to write the work, to finish the work to the best of our ability. It’s a critic’s job to evaluate the work.”
This is why I don’t do group critiquing in my classes. Because I want my students to think only in terms of their own work; I don’t want them to have to mull over several (twelve, fifteen) written judgments of how well other people think their work in progress is coming along. We each have to find our own particular, and sometimes idiosyncratic and peculiar voice, and this takes time, time best spent without listening to others’ opinions which can derail us. As I tell my students, what would a critiquing session sound like with William Faulkner sitting next to Ernest Hemingway sitting next to Virginia Woolf. Can you imagine it? “Your sentences are too long.” “Your sentences are too short.” “Why are you telling the story from so many points of view? Stick to just one!”
The problem with all this is that it’s judging a work way before a work is completed, way before the writer has found her/his voice for the work or even learned what the work is about. Many of us write really incomplete, semi-incoherent narratives while we’re in process, and we don’t figure things out until very late in the writing process. In my own work, what the work looks like two or three months before I finish often is very different from the work I complete. That’s because it takes me that long to figure out how I want to tell the narrative. And once I learn that, I work quickly.
I’ve seen many a writer–myself included–stopped dead in their tracks when someone offers criticism too soon. Or at all. My particular point of view is that we should wrestle with our work until we’re satisfied that we’re finished with it for now. When we believe that there is nothing left for us to do. Notice I don’t say we should wrestle with the work until it’s good. Just until we believe it’s finished for now, and working for the time being.
It’s important for me to maintain a certain equanimity while I write to get a book to the finish line. And there are a few behaviors I’ve adopted that help me.
1. I don’t say “My work,” I say “The work”. “The ending of the work needs some refining: maybe I need a concluding scene.” Compare this with “The ending of my chapter doesn’t work: maybe I need a concluding scene.” I learned to do this a long time ago. I read a wonderful meditation book for people with chronic illness that suggested it was better for us to say, “The arm is in a great deal of pain today” than to say “My arm is in a great deal of pain today” or to say “Anxiety is present today” rather than to say “I’m very anxious today. The first allows us some distance, some detachment that automatically makes us feel better (at least that’s true for me).
Similarly, when we say “the work” rather than “my work” we take a step back from our attachment to the work, allowing ourselves to assess what needs to be done, not judge the work.
2. Never judge our work’s merits. Just think about what needs to be done next, one small step at a time. Judging will prevent us from doing the work that needs doing. Think, instead, of the work that needs to be done: this will make us feel more powerful. It will give us an action plan. “The beginning of the work needs some tightening, I think; I’ll try it and see what happens” rather than “I hate the beginning of my chapter; I don’t know what to do.”
3. Keep our work to ourselves until we think it’s ready. Don’t hand our work around and ask other people what we should do, not unless we’ve wrestled with it work for a very long time and we’re truly stumped.
And a word about asking another writer to read our work. . . .
We must respect the fact that the reader is giving up time to do their own work to read our. Years ago, I spent a long time reading the manuscript of a friend’s memoir. She gave me guideline questions to answer as I’d asked. When I finished, I called to talk to her, whereupon the writer said that she’d changed everything already and that we didn’t need to talk. Hours of my time wasted. That was the last time I read her work.
January 13, 2016
I’ve been reading Augusten Burroughs’s wonderful This Is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More. For Young and Old Alike. His chapter, “How to Be Sick,” is the best advice I’ve read about how to live a life with/in illness. His cogent insight, borne out by my own experience, is this: “Thinking about something that could happen to you is always worse than when the very thing you dread actually happens.” Put another way, no matter the illness, no matter the declining condition of a person you love, “once you’re in it, it’s okay.” Or rather, it can be okay if we adopt Burroughs’s advice that we must be in it, not “in a state of refusal” about it.
I love this essay because of his insights about how much time we waste on anticipatory anxiety, how much energy we waste worrying about how much worse things can become. If I’ve learned one thing as a writer and as a teacher of writing, worrying that we won’t be able to write about something difficult, painful, perplexing, horrifying, embarrassing, humiliating, exasperating, or worrying that we’ll fall apart while we’re writing about that moment, is good writing time wasted, is good life time wasted. Ditto worrying about whether the writing will get harder as we progress; whether we’ll be able to finish the piece/the poem/the book. We expend a lot of time worrying that we won’t be able to write about something, or that we’ll never finish the work we’ve begun, or that writing about something will cause us enormous pain. It would be far better for us to be immensely curious about what happens to us when we allow ourselves to be present to our experience of writing.
I tell my students we can’t predict what will be hard to write. I’m currently writing about my sister’s suicide. I’m working a little at a time because that’s all I can do right now. “Isn’t it awfully painful?” a friend of mine asked. I could give her the inaccurate answer, and say that yes it is, but that it’s something I need to/want to do anyway. But the truth is that it’s not all that painful. And sometimes it’s not painful at all. Sometimes it’s even fun.
I’m not saying that I’m without feelings as I write, or that something I write doesn’t spring from feelings I have, or that writing something doesn’t elicit feelings in me. I’m saying that writing about this tough subject isn’t as painful as I assumed it would be. And why? To repeat what Burroughs has said, “Once you’re in it, it’s okay.” At least that’s been my experience in my own work, and in witnessing my students writing theirs. And let me say that it’s okay even if it’s hard.
The most difficult thing I ever wrote was this, and I never could have anticipated it: writing about how my mother would turn over our cereal bowls at night as she set the table to make sure no dust would get inside them. Writing that scene knocked me out. Unexpectedly. In a good way. Because in writing it I understood so much about her: how we’d lived in a filthy working class neighborhood where, by breakfast, the cereal bowls would have been filled with traces of soot from nearby factories; how she kept this habit even when we lived in a house in the suburbs; how caring and yet how crazy I thought the gesture was; how I wished I could have been empathic to her when she was still alive.
I’ve witnessed writers smiling as they’ve penned the most difficult scenes imaginable: being raped by a trusted friend; being abandoned by a parent; watching a loved one die. I’ve also witnessed writers connecting with powerful, difficult feelings while penning the most terrible scenes imaginable. I do know this: we can’t predict how writing about something will affect us until we’re in it. But however the writing affects us, it’s okay, we’ll be okay. And we’ll be far better off than if we don’t write.
Of course there are those who argue that writing about difficult material can push us over the edge. Witness Plath.
I’ve written before about how necessary it is for us to take care of ourselves as writers. And many writers whose lives I’ve studied do. And many writers whose lives I’ve studied don’t. Being okay while we write about difficult things assumes we’re taking care of ourselves as writers. Sylvia Plath didn’t: taking on too much (beekeeping after childbirth), acting as if she had superhuman strength, not asking for help, drinking too much, marrying a man who harmed her the day she meet him. Henry Miller, not at first, but in time, did. To take care of himself as a writer, Miller often took an afternoon nap. In his pajamas. Which is what Burroughs recommends doing. Taking a nap when we’re going through a rough patch. Or having soup. Or a brownie.
Good advice for those of us writing about difficult material. Rest. Eat soup. Reward ourselves with a brownie.
December 28, 2015
These days, recovering from Lyme Disease, I have far less energy than usual, and I never know when I’ll become fatigued. It’s what all of us who have or have had this illness talk about: how we don’t know from one day to the next, or one minute to the next when we’ll be flattened, and so it’s almost impossible to live our lives according to a schedule or to make plans. I was a writer who (at least after my kids left home) thrived on routine: at my desk by a certain time, write for a certain amount of time, do this about five days a week. But now that’s impossible. And so I find myself living like so many writers do: in a condition of uncertainty about when and whether we can write.
I’ve spent some time being angry about this. But then I realized that anger wouldn’t change the reality of my situation.
One stumbling block is the myth that we need blocks of time—a few hours or more—to do our work—what one writer about creativity calls great swaths of attention. Well what if we don’t have those hours? Do we stop work until we recover, until our kids leave the house, until we can retire? Or do we find other ways to work that respect the situation we’re in? I think this is a myth that needs debunking particularly because there are so many important stories that need to be written by precisely those of us who don’t have hours and hours of uninterrupted time.
What’s key is honoring the circumstances we’re living with: respecting the situation we’re in; understanding what we can change (if anything); accepting what we can’t (this is an ongoing, never ending process, at least for me); trying to find a way to work nevertheless.
An illuminating exercise I give my students is to tell them to write for, say, five or ten minutes. And then to count the number of words they’ve written. And to match that number against the number of words a writer like Virginia Woolf penned during a workday. We then figure out how long it would take for us to write a draft, say, of a 60,000 word book if all we ever had was ten minutes a day to write.
We learn that we write more than Woolf did; we learn that if we worked when we could each day, if only for ten minutes, we would eventually produce the draft of a book that, of course, we’d need to revise. We learn that stopping ourselves by telling ourselves that we don’t have enough time is a bogus excuse. We learn that we can find ten minutes by giving up doing something else.
While I was still in the early stages of this round of this disease, I came across “The Pomodoro Technique,” a time management idea created by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s. He wasn’t doing as well as he wanted to do at university and he realized that he allowed himself to be distracted too often. He learned that the successful students stayed at a task and worked consistently. He also learned that working for too long without a break is counterproductive. So, after trial and error, he realized that if he briefly outlined what he wanted to accomplish (for example, write at fire scene), and he worked on the task for 25 minutes (using a timer—a “pomodoro”—one of those kitchen times shaped like a tomato: Cirillo is Italian), and he took a five minute break after, and recorded what he’d done so that he could evaluate how long it took to do certain tasks, he could be consistently productive throughout a day. When the timer rang, Cirillo stopped working no matter what. He called each 25-minute unit a “pomodoro”; after four of them, he took a 25 to 30 minute break (which strikes me as being a sane way to think about work). The technique is more complicated than this, but you get the idea.
I think it’s a great technique and I’m now using it to write the book about my sister’s suicide. It is working for me because I never know when I’ll have enough energy to write; and it’s working, too, because this is a tough subject don’t want to stay with for a long time.
I can’t work every day (days after IV infusions are particularly hard). And when I write I rarely write for more than one twenty-five minute period. But I have been able to work often enough for one or two 25-minute stretches that I’ve written a little over 10,500 words since I became acutely ill in September. Knowing that I can write this book little by little helps me enormously. Keeping count of what I’ve accomplished in these short periods of time gives me hope, helps me continue. For I’ve learned that even a little bit of writing whenever we can write adds up to a whole lot of writing over time.
December 20, 2015
Several years ago, when I was searching for the ghosts of my ancestors throughout the south of Italy, my husband and I were staying at in elegant hotel in Ravello, overlooking the sea, a few villages south of Positano, the now posh but then poverty stricken place where my maternal grandmother had lived. My husband was sick, confined to bed. I was spending leisurely days on a balcony overlooking the water, reading, knitting, dozing. It wasn’t the sightseeing-packed holiday I’d planned, but it turned out—at least for me—to be even more enjoyable.
One twilight evening I was still outdoors deciding whether to rouse my husband for supper or to let him sleep. And from the street below I heard what seemed to be the music of a marching band. I could hear a trumpet, a trombone, the beat of a drum, a tambourine. Knowing that Italians celebrate saints’ holidays, and knowing that there are many saints’ days in Italy to celebrate, I scurried down to the front desk to ask what was going on.
The proprietor of the hotel was there, a gracious, graying, beautifully dressed man, and, in answer to my question, he shrugged his shoulders in the way that Italians have to indicate they have no idea what you’re talking about, and furthermore, they don’t care.
“But can you look outside and tell me?” I asked.
The two of us descended a few more flights of stairs. By now the band—for that was what I’d heard—was further down the street, about to make the turn that would take them to another road that made its way into the heart of the village.
“It’s only the local band,” he said.
“But what are they celebrating?” I persisted.
“Nothing,” he replied. “They get together and practice. And then when they know they’re ready, they march.”
“But why aren’t there any flyers?” I asked for I would have loved to watch them as they passed.
“Because they never know until the last minute when they’ll be ready and so they never know until the last minute when they’ll be marching.”
End of encounter.
This very Italian moment has stayed with me, and I return to it each time I want to hurry my work along, each time I agree to a deadline, each time I insist that my students hand their work in on time. For I know that there is a difference between creative time and clock time—time cut up into minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years. For I do believe that creative people work best if they themselves let the process of doing their work tell them when their work is ready rather than having an external deadline imposed upon them.
How can I know beforehand when a work of mine will be ready? How can I agree to make it ready in a year, or two? How can I, in good conscience, ask my students to have their work ready by a particular date on the calendar? For what if my work—or theirs—isn’t ready by then? What if it needs a few more days, or weeks, or months?
As I’ve aged—I’m now seventy-three, and feeling the press of time—I’ve paradoxically let myself slow down in my writing work; I’ve started acting like the members if that band—I’ll decide when my work is ready, and only then will I go public with it. I’ve started telling myself that I have all the time in the world (whereas in fact I don’t) and that the book I’m currently writing will be ready when it’s ready. And my creative time now, though it’s limited by illness, feels expansive rather than restricted; calm rather than anxious; free rather than constrained.
During the last few semesters I taught, if a student thought her/his work needed another week, another month or two or more, I said fine, remembering that band in Ravello that marched only when they themselves knew they were ready. I am thinking of one particular student. By the end of the semester his 20-page memoir was fine—through several revisions he’d made great progress. He handed his work in on time. But then he emailed me.
“It’s not ready,” he said. And then I committed a cardinal sin of teaching by responding, “I’m satisfied; let me decide.” As soon as I answered, I knew that was bad pedagogy, so I responded again, “Forget my last email. Take the time you need and we’ll figure out what to do about the grade.”
A few weeks later, he sent me another draft of his work. This time he’d examined aspects of his upbringing that he’d never touched on before. His first version was inauthentic because I’d forced him to “perform” before he knew he was ready.
The second version had everything a teacher could want in a work: soul, depth, authenticity, and beauty.
They practice, and then when they know they’re ready, the march.
October 26, 2015
First, that book about my father that I’ve written about so often in this blog, Chasing Ghosts: A Memoir of a Father, Gone to War, has finally been published.
I’m housebound again for another illness. This time, it’s Lyme Disease. And it’s pretty much off to the doctor’s a few times a week for IV, resting and recovering at home, a few lunches out and family meals, and that’s about it.
It’s at times like these when I’m so very grateful for the fact that I can listen to broadcasts of Terry Gross’s “Fresh Air” any time I choose instead of when I used to during my commute to Hunter College (I’d time my hour or more long commute around her show).
A few days ago I listened to her interview of the artist Andy Goldsworthy on the occasion of the release of his new book, Andy Goldsworthy: Ephemeral Works, 2004-2014 and an exhibit in NYC. If you don’t know Goldsworthy’s work, looking at a slide show on the NPR website will show you what its like. Goldsworthy works with nature, in nature, with natural materials, though his is not nostalgic “back to nature” work but a meditation on time, change, nature’s beauty, its implicit destruction, and how the hands of human beings have continually manipulated the natural landscape. You will see leaves chosen for their colors formed into concentric circles; bones placed inside a rotted tree; sticks and twigs arranged into fascinating structures placed in streams where they will inevitably be washed away. The only way to document the works that Goldsworthy often undertakes around his home in Scotland is to take photographs of them. This new book contains a range of a decade of his work.
There is something about Goldsworthy’s work that speaks to me. The fact that so much of it is private and ephemeral and initially and often viewed only by him (although neighboring farmers sometimes come upon him while he’s working) is very moving in this age of the artist/writer as self-aggrandizing public figure. For Goldsworthy, in the interview, states that his interest is in the making of the work. And that for him, a sense of loss and making art to deal with loss is key to his work. A tree dies; he’s known it for years; he’s bereft when he sees it; he witnesses the rot at its core. He feels intense pain at its loss, but he does something with that pain, not to make it go away, but to use it to create something beautiful. Each creation necessitates dealing with practical and logistical problems and although he doesn’t want a project to fail, and he does want to understand the nature of the material he’s using (even rain, which he uses when he lies down on the ground during a rainstorm, leaving a rain shadow—an outline of where his body has been), if he can’t complete the work, still, he’s learned much from doing it.
I write memoir. And perhaps I’m so drawn to Goldsworthy now because I’m embarked upon a project—a series of “requiems” for my sister who killed herself many years ago—that I’m not sure I’ll ever publish, that I’m not sure I can or will finish although I know I shall try. Still, there is something, now, so immensely satisfying with just being with the material, just doing the work, just returning to it day by day by day for the less than an hour that I have the energy to work that is immensely satisfying. And I realize that much of my work is impelled by loss, as I think most memoir is. Years ago I read a book by Andrew Brink called Loss and Symbolic Repair, which described a creative response to loss and grief as one of the major functions of, art making. It’s true for me, as it is for Goldsworthy.
And at the end of a day’s work—or to be more accurate, an hour’s work—it is immensely satisfying to me to pause and look at a photo gallery of Goldsworthy’s work.