A Hand Drawing a Hand: Writing about Writing

Today I decided to re-start my writing life. I told my friend, Mary, that I was going to commit to writing three hours a day for at least three days a week. “I’m going to get up early—6:00 am—and write.”

Yesterday I procrastinated all day and had the kitchen spotless. Then I removed a two-year-old coffee stain on the white shag rug under my writing chair. I also removed a macaroon that was stuck on the bottom of my sandals from the trip to Paris. Hmmm, I thought, you were a Paris macaroon, and now you are cement on the bottom of my shoe.

The whole day went by, and finally around 3:00 p.m. I made it up to my office, a place I had not visited all summer.

There on my desk were several piles of writing projects: poems, short stories, my collection of family stories and personal essays. So this is my problem, I thought, I try to work in too many genres. I even had a new novel percolating in the back of my head.

Writing Project Piles

Writing Project Piles

What about that other novel? I said to myself. The one you started years ago.

Well, maybe, I can fuse my idea for the new novel into the old one, I thought. So there emerged another writing problem: I’m always trying to figure out a way to work the old stuff into the new stuff.

Take the essays, for example. Years ago, I wrote a piece entitled “Long Distance to North Carolina.” I keep thinking that story, which could be considered a fusion of fiction and nonfiction, needed to make it into the world. So I revised it and used it as the title piece in a collection of nonfiction pieces that I worked on last summer.

When I presented this collection in the Madeline Island workshop Mary and I attended, the writer leading the group raised some good questions. “You need to know who your audience is,” she said. “If you’re writing these for family and friends—they will be interested in your work regardless, and you needn’t work so hard to gain their attention.”

That stopped me right there. Although I’d like my family and friends to be interested in my writing, they don’t seem to care all that much. Except, of course, Mary—who is a writer herself. I’m not blaming them. Mostly my family is busy living their own lives. And my friends? When we get together, it’s to enjoy each other’s company. My writing seems like a minor topic.

“If you’re hoping for a wider audience,” the workshop writer told me, “your work in revision will be bridging these personal narratives to universal truths or questions.”  True, who wouldn’t want a larger audience? Yet since I have neither an agent nor a publisher waiting in the wings, I see my larger audience as a misty cloud in some distant future.

Mary and I spent the rest of our spare time at the workshop laughing and trying to find our “universal truths.” I don’t mean to make light of this. I know exactly what the writer meant. I enjoyed writing those pieces; they meant something to me. But would anyone else care about them?

The workshop leader also questioned the fact that my writing is often also about writing. Just as I’m doing in this piece (the one you are reading), I write about writing in several of the pieces within that collection. “There’s little in your (sweet) moments writing with friends that hooks me,” she commented.

So here I am still sitting at my desk. Well, at least I’m at my desk. I’m writing about writing. It is like that Escher drawing of the artist’s hand drawing the artist’s hand. Is this a closed loop that no one else can enter? I don’t know, but it seems the best I can do today.

M. C. Escher, January 1948

M. C. Escher, January 1948

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Writing Talk: How is your writing life today? I call this blog “The Joy of Writing.” So why does writing seem not so joyful at times? Why do we avoid it? Where does the joy come from?

My mother was an artist. She seemed happy with the small pond of other artists in her community, with entering her work in local exhibitions, with taking part in art fairs. Is this where we writers can find our joy too?  Onward!

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Ray Bradbury, on curiosity and stimulating work, in his fantastic 2001 speech at The Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea:

I want your loves to be multiple. I don’t want you to be a snob about anything. Anything you love, you do it. It’s got to be with a great sense of fun. Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun with it. Ignore the authors who say ‘Oh, my God, what word? Oh, Jesus Christ…,’ you know. Now, to hell with that. It’s not work. If it’s work, stop and do something else.  (I’ve checked this quote several times. I’m not sure if Bradbury said “word” or “work” in the quote, but both work!  -V.)

 

 

8 thoughts on “A Hand Drawing a Hand: Writing about Writing

  1. Vicky – You must remember that you have inspired countless others in your classes on Sanibel. That same magic will work on that “personal student’ if you allow it without being critical. That “message in a bottle” is bouncing on your shoreline now!

    Robert D Peterson

    Deniable Justice
    The Syndicate’s Church

    • Greetings, Bob. Thanks for reminding me to heed my own advice and not be too critical. So glad you remember about the message in the bottle. Who knows where that bottle will land? I see your books are now in the world! Congrats!

  2. I agree with the “universal truth” advice, but I’m not sure we know what the truth we’ve written is until after it’s written. I didn’t realize until I’d finished the short story collection about a small town’s unwilling change in identity that each story was, in some way, about identity, the loss of, or a search for.

    I’m not so sure about the “hook” advice. I find your essays in this blog gentle, charming, very much representative of who you are as a person and as a teacher. The “hook” comes, not at the beginning, but with the questions you raise at the end. Those, I think, are universal questions.

    • As always, your thoughtful comments help clarify my own conundrums around writing. Maybe the “just do it” approach is the best one without trying to figure it all out.
      I do agree about the universal truths. Sometimes it is easier to see these in other people’s writing than in your own. But how to make such truths a part of the writing without being didactic, that is the question. Alice Munro and Chekhov are great teachers in this regard.

  3. This months blog really speaks to me Vicky, thank you!
    I have written next to nothing this summer and wonder if I’ll ever get started again. I think I need to revisit why I write and focus accordingly.
    I love the analogy of the hands drawing the hands. I have started many poems with “I miss writing, the feel of the pen”, etc. then I think who cares about this? I think I need a copy of that Escher print to inspire me to keep working through this maze until a worthwhile idea comes out:)

  4. Good to hear from you, Deb. For me, it seemed to help to spend some time up there in my office, looking at those piles of projects. I know it always works when I lower my expectations, when I just jump in and see what comes out. I remember some good advice from Andre Dubus, III, at the Sanibel Island Writers Conference we attended. I said something about just wanting to go walk on the beach and not write–ever again. And he said, “Well, that’s exactly what you should do!” Somehow that gives us permission to write or not to write–whatever give us pleasure. I have to tell you too that your writing has given me much pleasure. I’ll always remember the one about your dog–and one you wrote early on about a student. I can’t remember all the details, but these and others have stayed with me.

    • At a party last night, Jennifer McCormick, a stunning artist, described, with great excitement, the new paintings she’s been making, using a technique she’s never used before involving dyed beeswax, ink, wood. She said, “I don’t know what I’m doing as far as theme goes, or creating a show. I’m just having so much fun experimenting.” Her husband commented that she had created so many new pieces there was no place to walk in the house.

      Our host, who has academic chairs on 4 continents, founded a journal and more than one company, and is considered the father of biomedical devices, dumbfounded me when he explained how he got into the field. He doesn’t have an M.D.; he has a Ph.D. in metallurgical engineering. He heard an orthopedic surgeon give a talk in London, thought there had to be a connection to his work, and voila.

      I think creative people are drawn to do what they do.

      • What a good conversation, this is! I enjoyed the story about the creative people at the dinner party you attended. It is so freeing to try something new and see where that leads. Both the artist and the the engineer were awake to new possibilities–and not afraid to give them a try. Each saw new connections between the known and the new and moved forward to create something beyond the original path.

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