Unblocking: Cleaning the Office

At the end of the summer, I finally cleaned out my Minneapolis office. I must have removed dozens of trash bags of books, paper, and office detritus. To make the decision of what to keep and what to toss, I picked up and looked at what seemed like thousands of pieces of paper that I had saved for reasons clear to me in some distant past, but fuzzy now.

There were notes from college classes and papers I wrote years ago, letters from my mother (every single one), copies of the syllabi of classes I taught, stories I started and never finished, unrevised stories with comments from readers, stacks of journals and diaries, drafts and research notes for a novel. I found finished stories (never published) that I barely remember writing as well as poems and essays in various stages of development. Other drawers and cabinets were filled with old photos, greeting cards from friends and family, our Christmas letters, manuals and discs for obsolete computers, mysterious cords and wires for lost electronic devices, staplers, labelers, notepads, and lots of fountain pens with dried ink.

 Paper and more paper

Paper and more paper

Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up helped a little as I weeded through all this. Tossing old staplers and computer discs and even books I would never read again was easy, but that poem I wrote in 1967 when I was living and teaching in western Pennsylvania, not so. “Do I love this piece of paper? Does it give me joy?” I asked myself trying to apply Marie Kondo’s simple logic. No, but I can’t let go of the moment it captured–the words that recorded a very specific time in my life.

All those words–what was I trying to say? Why did I hold on to them? Why can’t I let them go? Surely no one else would ever care to read the stuff, not even my own family,  but why was it so valuable to me?

I learned that many of my obsessions are still my obsessions. Reading through all those writings was like looking at a giant quilt of one’s past and seeing repeating patterns, colors, textures, that all seemed to fit together.

One of the essays I ran across was an annotation on writer’s block I wrote over twenty years ago. I don’t know why I thought I had writer’s block when I was creating so many pages full of words, but this strain of resistance within me around writing was something I worried about then and even now–a pattern that repeats itself in the quilt of my writing life.

Quilt/Guilt? Some of my fear of letting go of all those words was also about channeling those finished and unfinished pieces into  publication. I was that person who loved to write, but still the voices of others and the ones in my own head, said, “Publish. Publish.” Wasn’t there a reason for my desire to write and a place in the world for those words to land? If I were a real writer wouldn’t I also be diligent about submitting work and delight in publishing?

In that short essay on writer’s block buried in a forgotten file, I refer to two books and one story. The first is Eugene Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery (U.S. publication,1953). While the focus of Herrigel’s book appears to be archery, the other key words in the title are zen and art. Herrigel, a German philosopher, writes about the ten years he spent training with a Zen Master in the art of archery. Substitute archery for writing and the message of the book (while not always perfectly clear to the my Western mind) helps me to understand why I thought my problem was as simple as “writer’s block.”

The second book I wrote about in my writer’s block essay was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones (1987). Natalie Goldberg studied with Dainin Katagiri Roshi at the Minnesota Zen Center from 1978 to 1984. “Why do you come to sit meditation?” Roshi asked her. “Why don’t you make writing your practice? If you go deep into your writing, it will take you every place.” In her book, Natalie relates her Zen practice to writing. “There is a Zen saying,” she tells us, “‘Talk when you talk, walk when you walk, and die when you die.’ Write when you write. Stop battling yourself with guilt, accusations, and strong-arm threats.” Stop resisting, I would say now, many years later. Stop resisting. Be myself.

The short story I wrote about in the long-ago essay was Bernard Malamud’s famous story, “Angel Levine.” I love Malamud and this story about the tailor Manischevitz who finds it impossible to believe that a black man who says he is a Jew and is found in Bella’s Cabaret in Harlem could be an angel. You have to read the story to get the full context, but near the end, Malamud writes:

 Tears blinded the tailor’s eyes. Was ever a man so tired?

Should he say that he believed a half-drunk Negro was an angel?

The silence slowly petrified.

Manischevitz was recalling scenes of his youth as his mind whirred: believe, do not, yes, no, yes, no. The pointer pointed to yes, to between yes and no, to no, no it was yes. He sighed. It moved but one still had to make a choice.

‘I think you are an angel from God.’ He said it in a broken voice, thinking, if you said it it was said. If you believed it you must say it. If you believed, you believed.

So yes, I have a lot of words. I have lots of paper. Is Levine really an angel? Or has Manischevitz been duped? Or all my words special and magical? No. Why some more than others?  Which ones to keep? Which to toss? How to tell?  What to believe? The pointer moves from one to another. Am I glad I didn’t throw this old essay away? Yes.

 

The Joy of Writing

We are in our final week of the Joy of Writing workshop here on Sanibel. I’ve appreciated the energy and enthusiasm of this group of writers as we explored the similarities between cooking and writing. Along the way, we definitely cooked up a good stew of writing.

Remember Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking—that classic cookbook from the 1930s?joy_stack_web

During the class, we talked about how this same joy can be found in writing. We’ve tried to counter the doubts, the fears, the negative emotions that sometimes creep into our writing lives. This is not to say that the writing itself need always focus on happy topics, but that even writing about pain and difficulty can lead to moments of joy.

We’ve talked about ingredients (telling details), recipes (structure/shape/form), heat (suspense, emotional sub-context, characters). One participant asked, “So if we have broth, soup, and stew, as a sort of continuum of complexity, when do we know to be happy with the simple broth?” When does a simple poem (that one delicious creme brulee), say all that needs to be said? Another writer asked, “How do we keep writing when no one is reading what we write?” Why do we cook when no one is there to eat the meals? Jan, who admitted she didn’t like to cook, responded, “I write for myself. I enjoy it. Besides, we never know who will read what we write.” Emily Dickinson comes to mind–or my mother, who along with her paintings, left me a huge stack of her journals.

We can always invite people over for a meal–which is what we will do on March 2 when some of us will read at the Sanibel Library and invite family and friends. Or maybe we write a letter to a person in our past, present, or future–the way we take soup and fresh bread to a neighbor.

We studied a short story, several poems, and an essay to see how other writers have cooked up a sort of meal or dish for us the readers. We talked about the opening or beginning of a piece of writing as the first taste we give our readers; and how as writers, we may have made that special sauce (the opening) much later in the preparation. We looked at the final arrival of the guests (our readers) when we put the meal on the table and remembered how the people at a dinner party are happy to enjoy the meal even if it’s not perfect.

Writing, like cooking, can be messy and creative. The meals we cook don’t always turn out the way we thought they would. Yet there is often pleasure and surprise in the process and the chance that a truly great dinner or that one amazing dish will make it worth all the effort.

And when all the work of cooking is over and the guests have gone home, we can sit back and enjoy a taste of coffee or a little brandy and reflect on what a good time we all had. What a relief that with writing, unlike cooking, we don’t have lots of dishes to wash!

In my next blog, I’ll share a recipe.

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Good news!  Red Bird Chapbooks has published my little book of poems, What Can Be front coverSaved. I’m so grateful to Dana Hoeschen and all the folks at Red Bird. This is a limited edition (100 copies. 44 pages, 8.5″ x 5.5″ single signature with hand sewn binding. End Paper and Cover Images reproductions of paintings by Vicky’s mother, Ruth Bethea Hodges).

Go to the Red Bird’s website to order and to see all the delicious chapbooks created by the amazing Red Bird press. If you’d like a signed copy, contact me.

Stop by Red Bird’s booth if you’re at the AWP conference in Minneapolis (April 8-11). I plan to be there some of the time.

 

Here is a sample poem from the chapbook:

My Mother

So many doors to walk through
each a little smaller
than the one before,
each asking that she leave
something behind.

First her coat
then the suitcase
finally her shoes.

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Writing Idea: Do you have a cooking story? Does it relate in any way to writing?  Stir it up for ten minutes and see what you can make. For another take on writing and cooking, check out this blog entry from Ploughshares.

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“I am more modest now, but I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.”
― M.F.K. Fisher

Confessions of a Workshop Junkie

In a few days, I’m taking the boat to Key West to attend “How the Light Gets In: Literature of the Spirit,” the 2015 Key West Literary Seminar. I’m looking forward to sitting at the feet of some great writers, a privilege no matter what my age. There is so much to learn about writing, our world, and the life of the spirit from reading and hanging out with writers, so I’ll settle back in the red velvet seats of the San Carlos Center on Duval Street and listen to Coleman Barks, Billy Collins, Mark Doty, Patricia Hampl, Jane Hirshfield, Marie Howe, Pico Iyer, Wally Lamb, Barry Lopez, Robert Richardson, Marilynne Robinson, and Steve Stern.kw_beach

“Our hope,” writes program co-chair Pico Iyer about the 2015 seminar, “is to talk about essentials—what lasts and what is at the heart of us—through poetry, essay, fiction, and even silence; to push words as far as they can go and then to respect what remains when they give out.”

These Key West seminars are immensely popular and sell out right away. In fact, the 2016 seminar (“Shorts: Stories, Essays, and Other Briefs”) is already sold out with a waiting list. So I’m must not be the only one who enjoys the literary treat of listening to writers, who have worked hard at their craft.

Following the seminar, my friend Mary and I will participate in Jane Hirshfield’s poetry workshop. Jane is a rock star in the poetry world and someone whose work I have admired for a long time, so again I’m so happy to have this opportunity to stretch my poetry wings in new directions, as I get to know Jane.

Rebecca McClanahan

Rebecca McClanahan

Last summer, Mary and I signed up for Rebecca McClanahan’s literary nonfiction workshop offered by Hamline University on the St. Olaf College campus in Northfield, Minnesota. Again what a pleasure to absorb what Rebecca had to say and to try my hand at many of her writing challenges.

Besides my poetry, I’m attempting to write a family memoir. “Now why I can’t I just sit at my desk and write the dang thing,” I ask myself. “Why am I always going off to hang out with these other writers in workshops?”

My mother was a good role model for me in this department. She continued to study art and learn from other artists right into her nineties. It kept her going. Art was her passion. So I’ve made writing mine. These other writers inspire me and give me great pleasure. They send me back to my desk with new ideas and with writing that I would never have done without them.

As I prepare to teach my own workshops here on Sanibel in late January, I hope that I can bring some of the same inspiration that these writers have given to me. We’re all great writers, each in our own way. The words we put upon the paper express our deepest desires, our unique histories and experiences, our longings, our loves and our losses. They record a moment in time that comes along only once.

Our words connect us to each other—the famous and the not-so-famous—we’re in this game together. So onward to the next workshop!

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Writing Challenge: One of Rebecca McClanahan’s writing challenges for those of us writing nonfiction is to “create a self on the page.” She says, “Part of what draws a reader into a nonfiction work–in particular a memoir or personal essay–is the sense that a flesh-and-blood character stands behind the words. Use the first person “I” to introduce and describe the person behind the words. To do this, you’ll need to acquire enough distance so that you can present yourself as a character on the page.”

Give this a spin to get yourself into your 2015 writing chair.You can refer to yourself as “he” or “she” and describe yourself as if you were a character in a story. A good experiment in humility–not a bad way to start the year.

P. S. See my earlier post, “The Size of My Life,” for a wonderful poem, “My Life at Sixty,” by Mary Junge, in which she creates “a self on the page.”

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I hope 2015 yields much good writing for you! Or I should say just “writing”—don’t worry about the “good” part. Put some words on paper—and feel good about that. Or take a class; attend a workshop. Try sitting at the feet of those writers who have honed their craft and gained some recognition in the process. Remember they got there from time spent at their desks, laying words on paper, like bricks in a wall. It’s never too late. Forget the fame part. Listen. Learn. And write. That’s my intention.

Happy New Year!

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“Our task as writers is not only to pay attention to our world but also to use the materials of the world in extraordinary ways. To do this, we must uncover the subtle design, the “figure in the carpet” that is woven into even the most everyday events. Often we must proceed without knowing what form the work will finally take. We write our way into the question, into the mystery. Writing begets more writing; meaning grows on the page.”   Rebecca McClanahan  (from her website).

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No Time to Write?

by Arlene Mandell

Guest Author

You want to write. You love to write. BUT you’re too busy to write right now. And when you finally clear a space, you find yourself staring at a blank screen with nothing urgent to say.

Here are ten ways to keep creative ideas flourishing:

Arlene Mandell

Arlene Mandell

1. When you don’t have time to write a “proper” journal entry, jot down a description, for example, of the tiny fawn faltering as she tries to cross the road. Use an index card or a sticky note. Date it and toss it into a shoe box reserved for that purpose.

2. Grab a book from your stack of unread books. Open to the first page; read the first sentence. For example, from the introduction to Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman by Alice Steinbach: “I write this sitting in my cozy kitchen on a wintry morning, my old cat dozing beside me on the warm, hissing radiator.”

3. Pick a quotation at random from Bartlett’s or another anthology. Here’s one of my favorites from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Poetry As Insurgent Art: “Poetry is the truth that reveals all lies, the face without mascara.”

4. Visit an art museum on-line and wander through a current exhibit. As a former New Yorker, I often drop in at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the largest art museum in the U.S. I select the photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron, for example, one of the greatest portraitists in the history of photography, and learn that she was forty-eight when she received her first camera.

imgres-15. Copy this quote by poet Ellen Bass and pin it to your bulletin board: “You should know something at the end of the piece that you didn’t know at the beginning.” When you have a moment, read the last line of your latest poem, story, or essay.

6. Even if you’re wearing baggy jeans and a faded sweatshirt, wrap yourself in the glamorous shawl that’s too good to use. Add a squirt of French perfume. Dream of faraway places . . . then write a few lines from Tangiers or Tahiti. Time to pick up the children from school? Toss your notes into your shoe box.

7. Open any book of poems. Riffle through the pages till you come upon one you like and read it aloud. Here’s Mary Oliver from “For I Will Consider My Dog Percy.” Read it aloud, then repeat the last stanza: “For often I see his shape in the clouds and this is a continual blessing.” Let the words and sentiment linger.

8. Visit your local bookstore. Yes, this can prove expensive, so set a limit, say $20
and buy one new thing, a book (obviously) or a scented candle or a box of beautiful note cards. If the store has a café, sip a cappuccino and write a note to yourself from a beloved teacher or a boyfriend from long ago.

9. Before chopping vegetables for dinner, dig through your CDs for something you haven’t heard in a long, long time. Put down the knife, close your eyes and remember.

10. Find your oldest journal. Turn the pages till something explodes and demands an immediate update.

* * *

I could go on and on, but by now you should have enough material to get you through some rainy days and dark nights. When you’ve completed all your grownup chores and double-locked the doors, take pen in hand. . . .

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Arlene L. Mandell, a retired English professor who lives in Santa Rosa, CA, was formerly on the staff of Good Housekeeping magazine. She has published more than 500 poems, essays and short stories in newspapers and literary journals, and in 24 anthologies.. Her echapbook, Scenes from My Life on Hemlock Street: A Brooklyn Memoir, is available free at  http://www.echapbook.com/memoir/mandell.
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Daily Routines

My dad used to say about my mother’s art schedule, “Now if Ruth would just get up in the morning and start painting, she’d really get something done.” Then he would go off to work. Yet despite the lack of a clear schedule, my mother completed hundreds of paintings during her lifetime. e86eeccde64e0cc3271becfeae872c76

I’ve always thought that if I had a regular writing schedule or clearer goals, I could get more done. Or maybe if I could find out how other writers do it, I could tap into some magic formula.

Mason Currey has turned “Daily Routines,” the blog he has been writing for the last six years, into Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (Alfred A. Knopf),  a most amazing collection of the routines of 161 composers, painters, architects, performers, writers, and other creative individuals.

So while I procrastinate, it’s enlightening to read how others managed to do what they do. The American composer, John Feldman, said that he had received the best advice from John Cage, who advised him to “write a little bit, stop and then copy it. Because while you’re copying it, you’re thinking about it, and it’s giving you other ideas.” He also believed in practical things:  the right pen and a good chair. Jane Austen wrote in her family sitting room, “subject to all kinds of casual interruptions.” Gertrude Stein liked to write outdoors where she could look at rocks and cows in the intervals of her writing. She was never able to write more than half an hour a day. “If you write a half hour a day it makes a lot of writing year by year. To be sure all day and every day you are waiting around to write that half hour a day,” she said.41kaZ6C4clL._AA160_

We learn all sorts of other interesting details from Currey’s collection. Louis Armstrong, a lifelong insomniac, always took Swiss Kriss, a potent herbal laxative before falling to sleep, lulled by music. Joseph Cornell constructed his boxes at night at the kitchen table. Patricia Highsmith was a chain smoker, who loved her vodka. According to one of her acquaintances she “only ate American bacon, fried eggs and cereal, all at odd times of the day.” She was also inspired by snails. “They give me a sort of tranquility,” she said about the three hundred snails in her English garden.130411_dailyRituals_intro.jpg.CROP_.multipart2-medium

As for me, I find it impossible to write in the office I created to write in. Right now I’m sitting at the kitchen counter, surrounded by newspapers and a few dirty dishes. My Kindle is open beside me as I read Currey’s book. But the best part: I’m listening to Willie Nelson. “No, you don’t know me,” he sings. “You ain’t missing me. I let my chance go by.” Only a few steps away in the cupboard is my stash of Hershey chocolate bars. And in a few minutes, I can stop writing and take Sam, our dog, and his cousin, Myles, for a walk.  I’m always looking for reasons to take a break! And besides, Roger Miller is now singing “King of the Road”: “No phone, no pets, I ain’t got no cigarettes.” Is he trying to tell me something about his routine?

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Writing Jumpstart:

What’s your routine? Go for ten minutes. Or write about your ways to avoid writing. What about other artists you know? How do they work?

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