Thursday, February 25, 2010

Slaying Angels for Fun and Profit

I appreciate Ron's post below, and I've been thinking about all of this a lot. Writing depends, not just on time, not just on having a nice room of your own, but on having the mental space to create. And sometimes life just doesn't allow that. I just went through a period where I wrote next to nothing for over a year. Even typing that kills me. Oh, I tried. I came up with ideas. I started books. But nothing took. I couldn't see in stories any more. I couldn't hear voices. I just didn't know how to make the books go anymore and it killed me. Because this is what I do, it's all that I do. You want to depress a writer, ask them what they would be doing if they weren't writing. I have no other skills, except for obsessive Olympic-watching, making snarky comments about Project Runway, and pie.

Sure, a lot of it was situational. My husband was ill for a year and a half. My little boy was labeled a social deviant by the toddler program at the school we'd been so happy to get him into. I couldn't manage to write around my teaching. I hadn't really figured out how to write and be a mom. There was so much stress, and when there wasn't stress there were time sucks, and when there weren't time sucks there was the croup, and more croup, and still yet more croup. I wrote nothing. People kept asking me, "What are you working on?" and the question would make me want to weep, or at least eat many cupcakes. I wanted to print up a t-shirt: DON'T ASK ME ABOUT MY WRITING.

My husband's better now. My boy, by switching schools, has magically lost his social deviant status. And after the last residency at Hamline--which was particularly awesome and inspirational--I got home and began to write again. I'm nearly done with a draft of a book I started five weeks ago, and I'm in the deep romance phase of writing. The truth is, things aren't that much less stressful, but a switch turned on in my brain and I remembered how to tell stories again.

It bothers me how whimsical these muses are, how easy it is to forget how to do what we do. Life is always hard. There is going to be more illness, more hardship, more croup. And this is what I do, and I need to be able to do it when the angels intrude. Or when the well is dry. Or when I forget the only thing I know how to do--make up stories.

I admire our students so much. They write. They figure out their lives and they get their work done. They amaze me.

All I can do is listen to the better angels, and scowl at the worse ones, and tie up and threaten my muse, and wait for the moment when the ideas come and the story lays out in front of me like a shining path. It feels helpless. But when you're on that path, nothing's better. I just wish I knew how to find it more often.


  1. I often feel a bit...well, geriatric...that I am still in the beginning phase of my writing at this time of my life. I sometimes wonder how different my writing career might have been if I'd made an earlier start of it.

    Now, I have the luxuries of kids who have left (or nearly left) the nest, a husband of 34 years who can handle a vacuum and a washing machine, and even a room of my own. I also have a full-time job that pays the bills, even though it sucks a lot of time I'd prefer to spend writing.

    When I think of my life 10-15 years ago, and all the Cub Scouts, Brownie Scouts, PTA, Vacation Bible School, dance lessons, etc., I'm in awe of those writers who do this with young kids. Others have obligations like aging parents or others to care for, and still they get the hard work of writing done.

    Hats off to all of us to manage to somehow find the creative side our ourselves in the midst of the many aspects of our lives that try to pull us away from it.

    Hug that toddler, Anne! Enjoy it while you can and believe it when everyone tells you, with a wistful sigh, "They grow up so fast!" Listen to him, as Jen does to her little muse.

  2. Anne, so glad that you are on the path again with your novel. There is nothing like that first draft mystical state when everything seems possible.
    Your comments confirm for me the power of regular reflections on our writing life. We return to various states over and over, but we get through them. My journal helps me remember that this too will pass and the good times will return. Oh, and my writer friends. What would we do without each other? Our spouses, friends, and relatives can only understand so much.

  3. This all makes me think of Claire's lecture on the narrative arc of our life being a part of the narrative arc of our work. All our characters meet conflict and decisions must be made. I try to embrace the chaos as part of what makes art, part of what helps me to tell the story, to believe my characters can oversome. Of course, one needs the discipline not to get distracted as Virginia Wolfe spoke about. But it is all these distractions (angels and demons) that bring stories to us, because those things are life.

  4. Oh, I feel every word of what you wrote, Anne. Every day, every morning when I try to get up before the chaos of life begins to be profound. Most days, I'm a rambling idiot. (Which is good then, that I'm trying my hand at picture books, a safe place to nurture one's idiotic tendencies.)

    One of my second semester friends sent me a link to this lecture by Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing our creativity. In it, she discusses how in ancient times, genius wasn't something an artist possessed, but something that visited an artist, a daemon, a muse. You never knew when it would stop in, you just had to be ready. I loved that. It took the pressure off me, just a wee bit.

    I wish I knew what it felt like to be in the romantic stages of writing a novel. One day, maybe soon. Know that to struggling writer-moms like me, you're a hero.

  5. There are no housework angels in my house--except when my mom comes to visit. This conversation began while she was upstairs cleaning MY stove yesterday and I was downstairs writing. I felt guilty, but she assures me that she doesn't judge--and that she's happy to help. I'd like to believe her.

    I sympathize with the brain getting too full to track something longer. When I was still working full-time, there was a period after my second child was born where I did almost no writing. I worked on poems, and shorter pieces here and there. Nothing sustainable.

    One thing I like about the 11-day residency is that clears away all that detail we carry around mentally. When I come back, I have to consult with others on the grocery list b/c I have no idea what they have or haven't eaten for 11 days. We underestimate how much space those details take up.

  6. Jen--That was a great link! Thanks for sharing, I loved what Elizabeth Gilbert had to say. Now...back to my writing desk! I think we should all greet each other with "Ole!" from now on!

  7. Anne,
    I'm glad your muse had room to return. Vacuuming husbands and stove-cleaning mothers are a real treat. And how sweet to be personal. Writing is personal. And I guess even a dry time can make something worth writing about when it is finally over. I wonder about not being able to do anything besides write. But I don't feel that writing is the thing. It is the sensing that comes first. If I as a person am more sensitive than many then it looks like I'm doing nothing, and am not capable of adventure, but I'm sensing. So for myself and those who don't or can't, writing is just putting all those sensory details down somewhere so I can unload and others can pick up. I once read a description of a sunbeam by Dickens that took over a page. I can still see the sunbeam in my mind as though I were there. He may have looked like he sat around doing nothing. He may have been able to do nothing besides write. But I remember well from English class--He was paid by the word.

    --and he brought about a revolutionary change in his peers view of an oppressive class system.