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.


Deb Shelton and the Goodreads Poetry Contest

I hardly ever send my poems out, but one day recently while looking at the Goodreads site, I saw an announcement for a monthly poetry contest. So I sent one of my poems: “The Space between the Words.”

I wrote this poem some years ago (June 2004) in honor of my good friend, Deb Shelton, who died at age 58, from breast cancer. On the day of her funeral, the words came to me as I searched for the answer to the question: Where are you, dear friend? Where have you gone?

DEBDeb was so full of life and laughter and love that it seemed impossible that we could ever lose her, but we did. We used to talk a mile a minute and ride bikes around the lake and go on about our children (our sons were about the same age.) So the poem lives on now as a reminder of Deb and how she came to occupy “the space between the words” in my heart.

This morning when I opened my e-mail, I found that the poem was one of the six finalists for the month of November. I am honored, but the poem is not about me. It’s about a good friend–and all those we love and lose–those we are honored to have as part of our lives.

If you want to read the six poems, here’s the link:


I think you’ll enjoy all of them. And of course, you can vote for your favorite! (But you have to do it today.)


Writing Jumpstart:  Take ten minutes today to write about someone who isn’t here anymore. Go.

Writing Stories: Michael Silverblatt with Jess Walter

One of my favorite podcasts is Michael Silverblatt’s “Bookworm” from KCRW. These interviews with writers are about the right length for a thirty-minute walk around the neighborhood.

Silverblatt recently  talked with Jess Walter, a novelist and short story writer, whose latest book is We Live in Water, a collection of short stories. Walter says he spent seven years trying to get his stories published, and they kept coming back. “Manilla boomerangs,” he called them.

Jess Walter

Jess Walter

Lately we are seeing an increase in the popularity and publication of short story collections. George Saunders, Sam Lipsyte, and, of course, Alice Munro all have new collections of stories.

If you have a short story tucked away in the drawer, why not take another look at it? And then write a new one just for the heck of it. You’re on your way to a collection!

I’m going to uncover a few of my stories lurking in certain computer files, breathe some life into them, and send them out. Maybe they will be “manila boomerangs,” but at least they will be out of hiding.

Here’s the interview from “Bookworm” (3/21/13).

Click on the small blue (Listen) bar below. We’ll talk more about fiction writing in future blogs.

Jess Walter: We Live in Water


Listen to/Watch entire show:

A Note in a Bottle: Sending Our Writing into the World

During the last five weeks of our writing class (“Jumpstart Your Writing”) here on Sanibel, we’ve used the metaphor of a “note in a bottle” to talk about writing: the note as the words we write and the bottle as the container for the words. This bottle can come in many shapes. It could be in the shape of a single poem, story, or essay. It could be a collection of poems, stories, or essays. It could be a novel or a memoir. What about a blog entry? an editorial in a newspaper? a carefully constructed letter to a granddaughter? So the bottle is the shape we give to our writing.

When we’ve written and shaped our pieces into some sort of container, it is time to toss that note and bottle into the sea. (This is particularly apt because Sanibel is a slip of an island on the Gulf of Mexico.) In other words, it is time to send our writing out into the world.

The very act of bringing our shaped final piece to the class, then reading it, and passing out copies to each other is the simplest and most basic way of throwing our bottles into the sea. We’ve taken our words out of the notebooks, shaped them into some form, and sent them on their way.

Some of us may send our “notes in bottles” beyond a class or writers’ group. Maybe we’ll publish one of  our poems or short essays in the local newspaper; maybe we’ll send a piece to our families; maybe we’ll submit our writing to a contest or a magazine. We don’t always know where our writing will end up, or who will read it, for that matter.781sunderland_Janetheadshot

Janet Sunderland, one of the contributors to the anthology, When Last Mountain: The View from Writers over Fifty, is about to toss her note in a bottle into the sea. We’ve stayed in touch since the anthology was published, and she wrote to tell me that her chapbook of poems, At the Boundary, will be forthcoming from Finishing LIne Press. She writes: “That goal [of publishing a book] has been elusive to me and perhaps for a good reason. Perhaps I simply wasn’t ready to take on the daunting task of marketing and selling a book. As writers, we love to write. Marketing? Well, not so much.” So sometimes it takes a bit more of an effort to get that bottle out there. But Janet has done it.product_info

And so have the writers in the class.

Getting our work out of notebooks and into the world isn’t always easy, but then we can move on to create more notes in more bottles for more people to discover.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” –Maya Angelou

To find Janet’s book, go to Finishing Line Press, PREORDER FORTHCOMING TITLES You can read her bio and reviews of her chapbook. Congratulations, Janet!