It’s that time of year. Time for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference and this year it’s in Portland, Oregon. Come see me talk about writing and find out what the game Neon Daycare, which I played with my sisters and cousins as a young girl, has to do with writing.
S228. The Landscape of Memory: Writing Places That Don’t Exist. (Kelly McMasters, Miranda Weiss, Emily Casey, Jericho Parms) While setting is often seen as the purview of fiction writers, place has become its own sub-genre in the creative nonfiction community. Whether tracking breaking stories in situ or casting generations into the past, the writer’s job is often to create the landscape of memory out of the ether. How, aside from Proust’s madeleine, can we gain access to places to which we no longer have access, and landscapes that are essentially make-believe? How do writers render a remembered landscape real?
We talk about the weather here. All. The. Time. It shifts and changes and plays tricks. It’s March and the cedar waxwings have returned, or so they say. The robins must be on their way. Wild turkeys stalk our woods like soldiers. I follow their tracks up the mountain. I have been ill and then not ill and then ill again. But I cannot stay inside another day. So I have put on snowshoes and clomped across the field to the road that leads out to the pond and the mountain, which is perhaps more of a hill. My head spins all the way across the field until my breath slows into it’s rhythmic hum. Just walk and you’ll be changed, I tell myself, and everything about these woods changes me. Any woods, any nature, any body of water gives me reprieve. So here I go out into the awful March of endless winter hoping for relief from my sick brain and cooped up body.
I would like to spend hours here in the woods. But my anxious mind lurches from lists and tasks to plans and hopes and fears. I can only stay so long. Though I wish I could live in this solace always, I haven’t quite figured that out.
The other day I learned while listening to a podcast, attempting to fall asleep, that people with higher anxiety dislike neutral scents because of the way they trigger fear in the brain. If it is not a good smell it must be a bad smell, the anxious, fear-triggered brain reasons. I found this amusing because my father and I seem to have highly sensitive olfactory receptors, and we are also the most anxious neurotics of the family. It is true that I have a certain animosity towards potentially harmless smells when I was feeling particularly anxious. I shout out to my husband, “What is that awful smell?!” And he rolls his eyes and shakes his head at me. I am keenly aware of his various scents, which tend to be strong, and yet my children always smell right to me.
While listening to NPR, another nervous tick outlet for me, I heard a story on workers that monitor Facebook posts, which is a job Facebook contracts to another company. The workers aren’t well paid and they’re forced to look at horrific shit all day, including, reportedly, live feeds of murder and sexual assault. The workers must raise their hand and log out to use the bathroom. They are given a nine minute processing period, which they can use once a shift if they need a break after viewing disturbing content. I cannot, as hard as I try, seem to locate this story online. Nor can I stop thinking about it.
Though I care for these workers, I am more obsessed with the concept at play. I keep thinking about how we would never have been able to creatively predict such employment decades ago, but, had we, it would have made for excellent dystopian lit.
Much of what is happening in our world feels dystopian to me. And yet I’m convinced we continue to evolve as creatures–our brains shifting and rewiring towards what MLK has called “the moral arch of the universe.” Its tiresome to hear certain grownups talk about how well behaved children used to be–you mean, well manipulated, I think, well threatened?
Yet, these monitors of Facebook are real people who are suffering from exposure to traumatic content, and they are not well-cared for and their working conditions are abominable. They have an increasingly important role in the shaping our political and social landscape. But we often seem to overlook the most important jobs in our society. And, in terms of social media, as my friend, the Historian Jill Mudgett has said, we are like babies in the social media universe, we are bound to make endless mistakes; we have no idea what we’re dealing with.
Hibernacula means “tent for winters” and refers to the spaces in which animals hibernate. Frogs partially freeze in winter and their hearts stop. They form ice crystals in their lungs and body cavities but a high source of glucose keeps them from completely freezing or dying. When the hibernacualum around the frog warms up they unthaw and their heart and lungs begin working again. Some frogs just climb into cracks to hibernate for the winter. I have often hoped to find one. This trick of nature fascinates me. If I could find a frog hibernating I could bring it home and watch it come to life. This seems like the ultimate party trick.
In Beijing, in my twenties, I once took a one-block cab ride for which I paid, up front, ten dollars. I had missed a flight to Siberia and had no idea how to navigate the city. My anxiety then was extremely high. Luckily I found a hostel, booked a room, and hit the lounge where I downed three beers and turned in for the night.
I am convinced my anxiety would disappear if I quit coffee. But, alas, that shall never come to pass. In the evening I think longingly of coffee before bed. In the morning I do not get up until my husband has made the coffee and brings me a cup. Yes, I know, I hit the husband jackpot. But all my luck went into that.
Long distance running is the only effective way I’ve been able to manage anxiety. But sometimes I get tired and quit. I’m training for a half marathon in May, in which I hope to beat my PR. Competition has always motivated me until it doesn’t, and then I’m paralyzed. At the gym, where I go to run on the treadmill, which is extremely boring, I like to watch the others. There is one woman who seems to have disappeared inside herself–her choice in clothing and obsessive reading on the treadmill makes me think this. When I tell my husband about her he is uninterested. I want to explain the way her face personifies this concept of self erasure but my husband finds me cruel.
The other night I returned from the gym and he was sleeping and I was outraged because I had wanted to tell him all about how I ran into our friend Sigrid and she taught me to hula, which I’ve never been able to do. Instead I ate a bowl of rice and beans in the kitchen and thought about how my baby sister was about to turn thirty.
The passing of time has been the most disturbing part of my life. I dislike stasis, so I am unsure of the alternative. While it is clear from mere observance, that we will grow old and die, we do not believe it.
On the evening of my snowshoe in the woods, as I was clomping up the hill-mount, I saw a fluff of fur in the snow and stopped. It looked beautiful and alive but also dead. I could not see the entire body. I bent down with a stick and poked it, then lifted it up and flopped it around. A possum. It was not stiff and it bore no marks of injury. Yet I did not remember the thing about possums — playing possum.
I am a person stunned by wild animals. Despite having grown up in the woods, whenever I see a real live wild animal, especially up close, I feel excited. Here, in our cabin in the woods, whenever we spot deer in the field or rabbits in the yard we call out to each other to come and look. I couldn’t decide what to do about the possum in the snow. Leave it there and let it become another creature’s dinner or burry it beneath the snow. I laid my bare hand on it’s back and tried to feel for a heart beat. I did not think it was alive though, so I didn’t spend much time doing this.
The paws of a possum are particularly delicate; they have long slender fingers with elaborate padding and sharp nails. I pressed my index finger to this possum’s palm to feel the grooves and curves there.
When I finally shooed the children outside into frigid temperatures, I spy on them from my bedroom window. They are attempting to slide down a small hill along the side of the house on broken parts of a sled. Later I hear the younger one yapping like a wolf. Everything about this child surprises me.
The silence of this house is a kind of warmth. Not every house offers such delicious silence. But every empty house after children has given me this. To know I am alone gives me immense relief.
I decided to bury the possum beneath the snow. It wasn’t deep, just a layer to keep it safe. I’m not sure why I wanted to do this or why I feel a need to engage in sacred acts–or at least acts imagined as such. I said goodbye and climbed on. I passed the turkey tracks, deer, and wolf or coyotes. I stood at the peak and looked out for a moment into the trees and setting sun before I returned to the lower ground near the pond. I have been told that once a person falls through frozen ice into frigid waters, they only have around eight seconds before their body shuts down.
Later, I looked up the possum online when I realized that it could have been playing dead–something I had not recalled in the woods. Playing dead is involuntary for them. When facing danger, their body goes into a coma-like state that can last from between forty minutes and four hours. They are conscious but they cannot move. When I think about this odd evolutionary trick, I’m slightly horrified to imagine a comatose possum with consciousness, unable to move as it becomes prey. Or, in my case, unable to move or run away while a woman buried her in snow.
I once read War and Peace alone on a half empty train from Prague to Paris and the memory of this remains a kind of myth in my mind.
How’s your writing practice? Have you set writing goals for the year, month, or week? This post offers practical ideas and advice for writers who are working on strengthening their practice or trying to get back into one. Remember, everything takes time; be kind to yourself, relax, and celebrate the work you’ve already done. Happy writing!
There are no rules for having a writing practice. However, I once read the following advice on writing from a very successful novelist: Get to your desk immediately upon waking and begin writing immediately. If you drink coffee, brew it the night before and have it ready in a thermos at your desk. I couldn’t get past the coffee part, which is why I remember the advice at all — I cannot be expected to write without a fresh, hot cup! This famous novelist believed that the closer we were to the liminal state of our dreams, the greater our access to creativity. There’s a lot to be said about getting creative, but most writers understand that it’s simply the act of writing that gets you to the spaces of creative insight and not the other way around. So my first bit of advice about your writing practice is this:
Put in the time: You’ve got to put in the work of writing in order to become a better writer. This may seem obvious but many of us simply do not put in the hours because our lives are busy and full. We have children, jobs, partners, homes, pets, dinners to make, vacations to plan, businesses to run, groceries to buy and so on. The reality is that we can and do make time for the things that are important to us. So, to start, keep track of how many hours you spend writing a week. Decide if this is the right amount for you or whether you can put in more. I can promise you one thing: the more you write the better you write.
How Important Is It? Writing isn’t easy, so you have to ask yourself: Do I need and want to do this? Actually, the question we often pose is, will I be able to live with myself if I quit writing? If the answer is yes, well, then congratulations, you’re lucky. I know for the casual writer this seems silly or even disheartening, but for those of us who’ve been at it for a while it makes total sense. You’ve taken breaks, you’ve put your projects aside, you’ve moved on to new things, you’ve changed jobs, but you keep coming back to it: writing. To be an artist in this world, one that rarely values art beyond financial gain, requires a willingness to sacrifice: time, money, energy. So, the choice is yours but know that it is a choice that you’re making and a sacrifice. I find the rewards worth it but I always remind myself that I’m free to move on.
So, if you’ve decided that you’re a writer or you want to write (because I know many of you are afraid to call yourselves writers even though that’s what you are), my next suggestion is to make a writing schedule. After you track how many hours you write a week, decide what is reasonable for your schedule. It may only be three hours a week or it may be twenty or thirty. But keeping a schedule is essential for reaching a goal. Regular writing is essential for reaching a goal. There are two ways to do this: First, you can commit to a number of hours per week and fit them in when convenient. However, the second and preferred method, is to schedule the hours so that you can be sure to get them in. Block them out in your planner; write them down on the calendar. But get them in. Pretend, if you will, that you’re training for a marathon and in order to complete the big race you need to get your hours in. Or pretend you’re getting paid for them. Just get them done! Oh, and PS, you’re not going to enjoy every minute of it. But if you keep your butt in your seat and write, you will get to where you need to go (great advice from Anne Lamott, see her classic, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life).
Set a timer: When it’s writing time I suggest you set a timer and focus solely on your work. If the timer’s going then you are less likely to drift over to email and social media and fall into the black hole. Try thirty minutes to start–make it short and manageable. Take a break and if you’re feeling good try another thirty. Staying focused works.
Give your work time: Certain essays have taken me years to complete. Others were written in a fever over the course of weeks. I once completed a short story for an anthology in four days. I was alone and grieving the death of a beloved auntie and the story just came out. A friend of mine insists that some poems take an entire lifetime. Perhaps that story took my whole life to write and it was only then that I was ready to create it. Yet, most of my work has taken years, so give your work time. Never ever ever finish revising a draft of something and send it out in the same day. On the other hand, Annie Dillard writes that if you spend too much time away from your work, the project will die out. She likens writing a book to stoking a fire. If you leave it for too long it goes out. I have about three cold, burnt out novels to date, and countless other writings.
Avoid Perfectionism at all costs: There is a great Brain Pickings on this topic, which I highly recommend. But the gist is that if you’re trying to be perfect you’re not going to create anything. You must allow yourself the space to write crap… and lots of it. Get messy, write crap, follow your instincts even if they make no sense in the moment. Creativity is about making connections where none exist and bringing to light new ways of seeing, being, and therefore existing. Perfectionism, it’s said, is the highest form of self hatred — so ditch it!
Keep the Faith: Being a writer is a lot like being a profit wandering through the wilderness. Yes, there’s help out there but it is your vision and your individuality that matters. What you have to offer is your specific, intimate understanding of the world– There’s only one you! That’s the one we want to understand; the mind we’d love to access. And while writing is a solitary endeavor, it’s your friendships and connection to other writers and writing that will keep you going. My readers (two people) have kept me going for years. Without them I have no one to bounce ideas off of, to get feedback from, to share stories, and to kvetch with. Building up this community is essential to your success. And remember, success is mostly about whether or not you’re practicing as opposed to your publications. It takes courage to keep going. Here’s a lovely piece on Keeping the Faith.
Finally, create the right space. OK, I will admit that I’m writing this at my local coffee shop and that most of my writing occurs in bed; however, we need a space that feels right to us. Writer Dani Shapiro has written that she spent two years in her favorite chair writing her memoir Inheritance. She had an office but she couldn’t bring herself to go there. A former teacher of mine told me he can only write in his bedroom with the blinds drawn. Others seek out beautiful spaces, a room with a view, and so on. But essentially, what you need is a place to be alone (the coffee shop counts!) and feel comfortable.
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Last fall I fell into a clinical depression. Partly, I suspected, it had to do with an abrupt change in my running activity–from training for races to a few short runs a week–and perhaps the change of seasons. In Vermont, the darkness can be crippling. Days are cut off around 4pm in November and the lack of sunlight imposes a sense of doom for some. I suspect others cozy up to the wood stove and find solace in that same darkness. But I found myself frozen in a state of grief and fear that I hadn’t felt in years.
Poet Jenny Xie writes in “On Melancholia” of Freud’s distinction between mourning and melancholia. Here are her words:
In “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917), Freud traces the distinction between the psychological state of mourning, a normal response to loss that is finite, and melancholia, a pathological mourning whose labor is endless. Whereas in mourning, the object of loss is clear and can be released by the mourner with time, in melancholia, what has been lost can remain hidden and becomes internalized—”devoured” by the ego, as Freud writes. The ego absorbs the lost object and feeds on it interminably.
I read Freud as literature as I suspect Xie does as well. I like the idea of thinking of depression as a lost object. Something we’ve misplaced without realizing it. Devoured by the ego, we can’t stop mourning–the labor is endless. In many ways I see my own bouts of depression as moments when I have lost access to my life. By which I mean, I’ve lost touch with the life I want to lead; I have become estranged from myself.
I imagine my estranged self wandering along a forest path, through a city street, stopping for coffee… Romantic, yes. But this is not at all the way depression feels. Depression is a feeling akin to drowning that I imagine would mirror the experience of falling through ice with all your winter clothes on and not being able to get out. You try to kick off the boots but they’re stuck on; you try to climb out, but the ice breaks; you call for help, but no one’s there–or at least that is the way the mind imagines it. The mind imagines a life or death situation.
Even when I’m not in the throws of depression (which is normally) in my mind the voice of doubt is strong. I have talked to her for years and have learned to talk her down as well as to simply detach and observe the workings of the mind. Thoughts are not reality. Repeat after me: thoughts are not reality.
Tara Brach, meditation teacher, writer, and speaker, has noted that the ego doesn’t like it’s own training and thus turns on itself. I would equate this notion with her (and the Buddhist) notion of the second arrow. The first arrow is the harm done and the second arrow is the voice that scolds: how did you let this happen, you’re bad, worthless, etc. Thus, the voice of the second arrow is always telling me that I’m failing (it is also the more harmful arrow, the poisonous one, if you will). As in this morning when my four year old was having an epic tantrum and I held him down to brush his teeth before school–fail! I thought, what have we done? We are awful parents, bad bad bad. But my own training popped up (luckily) and said, it’s just a bad day, it’s temporary, he won’t be four forever, he’ll learn to brush his own teeth.
Failure is relative. You decide. You can change your thoughts, I’ve learned. Yet our sense of not being enough (doing, having enough) is a powerful part of our conditioning as human beings. We are locked into this conditioning and unless we see it for what it is we can’t get free. Even when we intellectually understand it, there are powerful triggers in our lives that catch us up again and again. But if we practice noticing and choosing different thoughts, which lead to different feelings and in turn different actions, we can overcome this.
Perhaps, as long as we are walking our path and engaged in what we love and what interests us, we mostly feel content. Do you believe that you deserve this? Do you think you have to suffer? Why? Alienation from our path (our best lives) is when depression and melancholia arise, in my experience. Often the texts go like this: What am I doing with my life?!?
Me: I’m fucked, seriously fucked!
Friend: What’s going on?
I admit to being a little dramatic.
The lost object, then, is not (of course) an object but the action of living our lives in ways that feel meaningful, purposeful, and right for us. A sense of being engaged in our right work, supported by our communities, and well-loved. A belief that we deserve to have all our needs met.
Last fall I began therapy again, which I have done off and on my entire life. I’m a huge fan, but you need to find the right person. I found someone magical, which has felt like a gift. She began by telling me that my expectations were way out of synch and that I was trying to do too much so I was crashing. My body was protesting the expectations I had forced upon myself. I thought of the previous two years, the insane amount of work I’d been doing to form and build our faculty union while revising my book, teaching, parenting, running, editing, and all the other life stuff. I let that sink in and then I said, predictably, but I’m not enough and I listed to her all the ways I was failing as a writer and grown-up person.
Her response: What if you just stop trying to do all that? What if you just write in your journal everyday and see what happens? What if you take a break? Have you ever done that?
No, I thought, I cannot take a break. I have too much to accomplish. I’ve got to start my second book and it needs to be a money-maker, I’ve got to promote my first book, I’ve got to generate shorter pieces for publication, I’ve got to get a new full-time job. Whooeee…. that sounds stressful. I told her I felt behind as a writer, publishing my first book at the tail-end of my thirties instead of my twenties. (Yes, I realize how ridiculous this idea is! But, conditioning!)
What if you aren’t that kind of writer?
What kind? I ask.
The rich and famous kind.
Well, that’s obvious.
We laugh. Then she says, what if your life, what you’ve been given, is the material you have to work with as a writer. What if your life is the material of your work?
I like that. I say, and think of my two children.
And so, I began to write to “X” everyday in my journal, a blue covered wireless notebook. I quit the novel I was working on. I didn’t attempt any essays. I just wrote to X. The Winter Solstice passed into the new year. Slowly I felt myself returning and in my hands a lost object emerged, small and quiet, a well-loved path.
Clinical depression often requires medication, medical attention, and other care. I do not mean to imply that we can simply think or journal our way out. Rather, I believe that depression can be rooted in our life choices and needs, triggered by responses to fear.
I want to be clear that seeking to live your “best life” and be your “best self” are somewhat privileged notions when most of the world is forced to labor in tenuous survival mode. I want to recognize this. And I believe I have a responsibility to use my privilege in service to others to help everyone access opportunities for growth and success. Some of the ways I do this is through teaching at the community college level, mentoring students, activist work, listening to and promoting the ideas (and work) of marginalized individuals/communities, teaching students how oppression functions, and donating money or time. I believe we all want to live our best lives (regardless of our socio- economic status) and there is enough for everyone.
To Read Jenny Xie’s extraordinary poem “Melancholy” click here
So much has been written about home: landscape of memory, guardian of the lost. We are actuaries of our homes (I mean our first homes, our childhood haunts) calculating risks v. benefits of returns. Shall I move back there? Will it be the same? Will it be different? My mind runs over the landscape of this home as though tracing a path, a sort of traveling through. I collect specimens: the smell of pine, the heat of the sauna, the wet cold of a snow covered lake, the crunch of snow under my boot on a cold night, Orion’s belt in the sky.
We are close, my family and I. How this came to be remains a mystery. But perhaps it is the fact of five sisters and one (youngest) brother. Or something to do with tribe mentality, wanting to be a part of and fear of abandonment. There are, of course, variations on this closeness depending on the moment in time.
Home has always remained a function of my imagination, my creative mind, my ability to manifest thought, feeling, action in whatever way, unconsciously and then not. Right now, I think most of running when I think of my childhood home. I imagine a long line that unfolds before me, my legs growing strong, my mind clear. I see my brother, fourteen years my junior, running in front of me through the August heat, sprinting hard against the quandary of the body. I hear my breath, feel the beating organ pulse, push on, push on.
Back in Vermont after three long weeks home with my two boys, I am finally alone. Silence folds in on me, a stillness everywhere punctuated by the solitary flight of a bird above the mountain.
I’m trying to get back to my writing mind, trying to dig down deep beyond the layers of fear, the raw anxiety of financial issues, the unknown.
We keep our lives in squares these days. I could show you mine: a lovely log cabin, a snowy wooded mountain view, a sun splashed table. But these images have become a commodity now and we are selling each other (and ourselves) our lives. What is wrong with that, you ask? It is not about ugliness but about the illusion of who we are. The covering over of fear and the inner life of the mind with stuff. The richness of our lives is always, as some say, an inside job, which means no amount of square, glossy beauty can make us happy.
And so, I have decided, this is the year of my becoming all the ways I need most: holding fear like a baby to my breast, giving her the comfort of words, the comfort of believing. I am at my best when things fall apart, as underdog and chaser of wild things. This is the year of justice. We are moving towards apocalyptic power, we are AOC & RBG, we are becoming. Long before Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming (amazing and def. worth a read!), back in my Julia Kristeva days, I fell in love with the word becoming–with the line of poetry I wrote in a cold Minneapolis cafe, watching the snow fall into the river and feeling my life scatter there at the surface: I am always becoming.
This is also the year of honest finances. I have to stop avoiding money and take a hard look at how I make it and how I spend it (ouch!).
And though we know a lot about a lot–intellectually– becoming is the practice of the moment and of making a different thought from the old, well-loved thought we have rubbed clean for years. It is making a different choice in the moment whenever you can. Our thoughts become our feelings which become the actions that shape our lives.
My car is dead in the driveway, my job is probably ending, I owe a lot of money in a lot of places — never-the-less, I am becoming.