On finishing a project (or trying to): the Finger Keddie edition

Back in 2015, when I was still employed as a visiting English professor and had a small travel budget, I went to the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and spent a few days in the special collections reading letters between Charles J. Finger and James Keddie. Finger wrote many books including several for children. (He’s best remember for this Newberry award-winner.) Keddie sold a home library called Journeys through Bookland. In 1931, Finger began to work for Keddie, writing newsletters and answering letters from concerned parents. As a researcher interested in how childhood reading was theorized and promoted, this correspondence was right up my alley.

I love archival research. I love the quiet, temperature-controlled environment, the strict instructions to use pencils or wear white gloves, and the assortment of carefully catalogued materials (boxes, accordian file folders, fragile books) that are delivered to tables. I also love being surrounded by other researchers embarked on their own idiosyncratic projects.  Archival research can be frustrating, surprising, and tantalizing. You don’t necessarily find what you hoped to discover, but you always discover things you didn’t expect to find.  I got lucky in Fayetteville. The correspondence between Finger and Keddie was rich, full of fascinating discussions and disagreements about childhood reading. But I also grew intrigued by the career of Helen Finger, Charles’s daughter, who illustrated books including some of her father’s.

I left Fayetteville excited. Still, as much as I enjoy doing the researching, the writing is a struggle. The materials have languished. Over the years, I have occasionally opened them up.  I have started drafts and made notes.  But then the project would get shelved again.  But sometime this year, I recommitted to it.  Having multiple unfinished projects is a burden, especially when you care about them and believe others might, too.  Maybe not many, but at least a few.

So for the past few months, I have been working on it consistently. I have made good progress, and now a draft is nearly complete, ready to be sent off to an academic journal. My deadline is May 23rd, the kids’ last day of school. It might be accepted; it might get rejected, but while it’s under review, I can feel like it’s ‘done.’  And can move on to next unfinished project.

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On Not Completing the AtoZ Challenge

I have no idea what is today’s letter is for the A to Z writing challenge.  I made it to letter I, and then stopped. Life got in the way, and then it was hard to find a way back in. Thinking about it made me feel a bit panicky, so I avoided WordPress altogether. I even stopped reading other people’s posts.

But, for whatever reason, the aversion has passed.  This post is not about dwelling on how I didn’t complete the challenge, because bemoaning my (not) writing is counterproductive.  April was a busy month. I had a lot of papers to finish for grad school. And maybe blogging every day is always going to be too much for me, regardless of what else is going on.  Maybe I need more realistic blogging goals.  This blog is still a work-in-progress. And I’m here today, and that feels good.

It’s a Friday morning in spring, and the pink buds have popped on the apple tree outside my window. The chickadees are at the birdfeeder. I’m reading a good book, and making daily progress on a long-languishing academic article. Tonight, I’m going to hear to Barry Lopez speak at the Tattered Cover.  All of that feels good, too.

 

 

 

My Writing ABCS: I is for Idols

Another down and dirty post, since I’m still working the paper that was due earlier this evening. :/ Here are a few of my writing idols:

Alice Munro.  My favourite writer of all time. Her short stories are so honest and capture the complexities of people and relationships. They highlight the nuances and depths at work in our lives  Perhaps more than any other writer, I’ve come understand myself better through her work. This quotation from The Lives of Girls and Women has stayed with me since I first read it as an undergrad. It speaks a truth I continue to re-learn.

“People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing, and unfathomable — deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum.”

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Meghan Daum.  When I read the essays in The Unspeakable I felt like I had met a kindred spirit.  It helps that we are close in age, she loves Joni Mitchell, and isn’t a foodie either.  But more than that, something about her work made me feel known and understood. Her essays are sharp and penetrating. Many writers inspire envy in me, but Daum is one of the few whose writing makes me  want to write, too.  The essay “Not What It Used to Be” which explores middle-age nostalgia for our younger selves broke my heart in the best ways.

“Life is mostly an exercise in being something other than what we used to be while remaining fundamentally — and sometimes maddeningly — who we are.”

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Virginia Woolf. Who else? She looms large in my life and imagination these days. As I’ve mentioned before, 2019 is my year of reading Woolf.  And spending so much time with her novels, letters, journals and essays has only confirmed her brilliance and insight. But I have found her development as a writer, and her desire to write differently about mundane lives inspiring. How to choose a quotation?! I’m currently re-reading To The Lighthouse, and could choose a passage from every page. Here is one about Mrs. Ramsay that pierced.

“For now she need not think of anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of – to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others… and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures.”

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My Writing ABCS: G is for Goldbrick

This is pretty much a non-post. I have three papers to write for my grad school classes. The first is due tomorrow. I’m behind. Hopefully panic mode kicks in soon.  I have been watching these papers come towards me for days, and yet haven’t mustered much energy to rise and meet them. The goldbricking needs to stop.

To goldbrick, I learned today, means to shirk responsibility. It’s the only synonym for procrastinate that starts with the letter G that I could find. The connotation seems a bit shadier, closer to being lazy and loafing than mere putting-off.  Although, whatever it’s called, shirking, loafing, shilly-shallying, procrastinating, goldbricking, the result is the same.  And I’m well versed in it.

I nearly bailed on writing this post as well. But I knew that would make me feel even worse. I’m not ready to give up on the AtoZ challenge yet. And fingers crossed, “Incomplete” isn’t my writing word of the day tomorrow.

My Writing ABCS: F is for Fog

I grew up in a foggy, port city. (Not London, unfortunately)  Many mornings began in a thick blanket of gray, that would eventually “burn off.” Or it could last all day, keeping the world shuttered in mist. Nighttime fog made everything mysterious. I miss the fog, especially now that I live in a city that is relentlessly sunny.  Fog allows for musing, idleness, solitude, moods that suit an introverted person like me.

E. L. Doctorow has said, “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” On a foggy night, your headlights do not illuminate much. You inch along, seeing few feet ahead. God forbid a deer jump out in front of the car. Driving in my hometown on a foggy night, I would often rely on memory more than sight to guide me. Tweaking Doctorow’s quotation, writing for me can be like driving on a foggy night, creeping along with faith I’ll eventually get somewhere.

Sometimes, I can feel in a fog when I try to write. It can descend and envelop my head, blocking whatever I wanted to say from getting on to the page. Writing becomes nearly impossible, and I haven’t found a way to power through it, to make the fog ‘burn off.’  I’ve learned it’s better to give in, to retreat into musing, idleness, or solitude. It reminds me writing is not just a matter of the will. And to trust that things will be clearer when the fog lifts.

 

 

My Writing ABCS: E is for Easy

It’s Friday night, and I’m tired, so I’m taking the easy way out. Or as Montaigne says, “I quote others only in order the better to express myself.”

Enjoyment

The fondness for writing grows with writing.  Erasmus

Ease

All things are difficult before they are easy.  Thomas Fuller

Ending

Great is the art of beginning but greater the art is of ending.  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Experience

All experience is an arch, to build upon.  Henry Brooks Adams

All these quotations are from The Writer and the Reader: A Book of Literary Quotations (1984) by Neil Ewart.

 

My Writing ABCs: D is for Denver Central Library.

Discipline, devotion, drafting, these are the possible D topics I had jotted down when I began brainstorming for this #AtoZchallenge.  But this morning when I looked in my notebook, none of them, as Marie Kondo would say, sparked job.  So today as I wandered around Denver Central library I decided to make it the subject of today’s post.  Since there is no writer me without reader me.

Denver’s Central Library is not my usual go-to branch. It’s a 20 minute drive from home and the parking is tricky. But I met a friend in the city for lunch today and then had a few hours to spare before school pick-ups. And I do love it there! In general, I am happy in any library, but this one is particularly enjoyable.  The collections are rich and expansive and there’s a robust secondhand book shop run by the Friends of the Denver Public Library.  Plus, there seems to be so much more than books in that seven-story building, so much life and activity including lots of people from Denver’s homeless population. I can understand why they like to take refuge there.

I spent a good hour in the new books section and picked out an ambitious stack of books I don’t have time to read.  Then, weighted down by my library bag, I took the elevator to the 7th floor where a gallery of Colorado art from the 1800s to present is housed.  Unlike the rest of the library, this floor was quiet and empty.  I wrote down some names: William Sanderson, EO Kirchner, Reba Lee Savageau, Sushe Felix.

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William Sanderson, Untitled (Colorado Town), 1950.

Theirs were the paintings I liked best. I still have so much to learn about this state.  But I don’t like reading history, and learn best in happenstance sort of ways.

By the end, I felt like I had treated myself to a little Artist’s Date.  That something Julia Cameron advocates for in her various books on creativity.  In Finding Water: The Art of Perseverance, she writes, “As the name suggests, we are out to romance or woo our artist. We do so by taking a weekly solo expedition to do something that is just plain fun.”  The date can be anywhere: a museum, a church, or a park. Even a library.  I don’t know if my creativity was wooed today by going to the library, but my bookish, curious self was a bit sated.

 

 

 

My ABCs of Writing: C is for Courage

Back in January, I chose courage as the theme for my writing year, although I didn’t tell anyone. Over three months into 2019, now seems a good time to make it official. Can one write without courage? Not really. Because there is no writing without some kind of fear: fear of failure, or embarrassment, or exposure. Maybe even fear of success.

According to Ralph Keyes in Writing as an Act of Courage, “trying to deny, avoid, numb, or eradicate the fear of writing is neither possible nor desirable. Anxiety is not only an inevitable part of the writing process but a necessary part. If you’re not scared, you’re not writing.”

Fortunately, I have plenty of fears. I haven’t shared this blog with anyone in my real life. I fear the judgement, I think. But even writing this under-the-radar blog demands a bit of courage from me. Each post fills me with self-doubt. I worry that it is pointless or silly. Perhaps I’m being foolish? But, I’m writing another post, so the fears haven’t entirely won yet.

Recently I dreamt that I was driving an empty yellow school bus. I almost lost control of it a few times, swerving and nearly crashing, but I always managed to right it again. At therapy, we discussed this dream and my associations with school buses. I said they’re big, bright, and noticeable. My therapist suggested that the bus was an aspect of me, the part that wants to be seen and heard, even when it’s scary. So here I am, my courageous writing self, a slightly out-of-control, big, yellow school bus keeping on keeping on.

 

 

 

My ABCs of Writing: B is for Beaver

When I was in the second grade, my class did a unit on beavers. We made clay figurines, built dams out of sticks, and wrote and illustrated stories about them. My tale about a family of beavers building a home in the spring was a hit with my teacher. Mrs. Steen read it aloud to the class, posted a copy on the hallway bulletin board, sent me to the office to share it with the principal, and phoned my mother later that evening to tell her what a good job I’d done.  I remember feeling both proud and baffled by Mrs. Steen’s praise, unsure what the fuss was all about. The illustrations — not the writing —  were what I had been most proud of upon completion.

Decades later, my niece had Mrs. Steen, too. She sent Claire home with a copy of my beaver story. I was flattered Mrs. Steen had held on to it all these years, and was interested to read this seminal work in my writing life.  For a seven-year-old, I suppose it’s fairly sophisticated.  There are competent sentences about beaver life. The beaver father’s warning tail SLAP! neatly written in uppercase is a nice touch, giving sound and urgency. The ending completes a narrative arc with the acknowledgment that the following spring, the kits will be grown and starting anew the cycle of building, mating and harvesting.

My history as a writer begins with this beaver story.  It was the first time I received praise and attention for writing and it made me believe writing was something I could do.  And for the rest of my school life, writing did come pretty easily. While no teacher was ever as enthusiastic  about it as Mrs. Steen, I continued to earn good grades and positive feedback for it on into high school.

Depending upon my mood, I have imbued my beaver story with various meanings. Perhaps such early accolades set me up for failure, filling me with false confidence and a need for outside approval. Or perhaps it is indicative of a natural talent, a sign that writing has always been my thing. Who knows? Maybe and, or, neither. Either way,  it was a pretty good beaver story. And the illustrations! Well, they were even better.

 

The ABCs of Writing: Ambivalence

Kicking off my ABCs of Writing for the A to Z challenge with ambivalence, as in, A for ambivalence.

I first encountered the term “the ‘ambivalent writer” in Betsy Lerner’s book The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers (2010). Lerner is a long-time editor and that experience gave her valuable insight into how writers work, what drives them, and what plagues them. She decided to share this knowledge, as she explains “to help you if you can’t start or finish a project, or can’t figure out what you should be writing” (6).

In the first section of Lerner’s book entitled “Writing,” each chapter describes a particular writing personality: the natural, the self-promoter, the neurotic, and so on. Lerner outlines the challenges each personality faces. The natural panics when things do not come easily. The neurotic is derailed by worry. The self-promoter is  frustrated when fame does not materialize.  And so on. 

It was her description of the ambivalent writer that really hit home. The ambivalent writer has several unfinished projects on the go, dabbles in different genres, abandons projects, and then wonders why others have success when she does not.

(Besides this blog, I have two scholarly articles, two personal essays, and a lit-crit essay and  in various states of completion. I’ve been working on them for years. No joke. Plus scads of other ‘possible’ project ideas.)

As the chapter goes on, Lerner begins to create a psychological profiles of the ambivalent writer. She writes:

You also have so many conflicting thoughts and feelings about writing and about yourself as a writer you are unable to choose one idea and see it through. You cannot focus. Just as you settle on one idea, another voice pops into your head. Or just as you sit down to write, you suddenly and inexplicably fall asleep (14).

Hmmm, sounds familiar. So often writing makes me sleepy, and then I just take a nap. She goes on:

“I believe the writer who can’t figure out what form to write in or what to write is stalling for a reason . . . Maybe not writing, maybe being driven crazy by the desire to write and the inability to follow through, is serving some greater goal, keeping some greater fear at bay” (20).

Ultimately the ambivalent writer is caught between desire and fear.  Her advice: get very clear on why you write.

“I can assure you that you will never finish a piece of writing if you don’t understand what motivates you to write in the first place and if you don’t honor that impulse, whether it’s exile or assimilation, redemption or destruction, revenge or love (21).”

And then find your own voice:

“The ambivalent writer can’t hear himself think, can’t commit to a single vision, can’t stop wondering if six other directions aren’t the right ones to take . . . He can’t hear through the static to find the one true voice” (26). 

And perhaps, most practically, find a topic and a form that works and stick with it. Get’er done! (One, just get one piece done!)

According to Lerner, writers write because they have to; they have no choice. Even when it’s hard, even when it’s frustrating, even when it’s lonely. And ultimately the ambivalent writer must develop this need, too. It has to be greater than the fear.  She ends the chapter by saying:

“You must turn your ambivalence into something unequivocal” (30).

Boom.

I like personality tests. Knowing I’m an INFP according to the Myers Briggs or that I’m a Type 5 on the Enneagram doesn’t change who I am, but gives me insight into why I do the things I do. And understanding I’m an ambivalent writer helps too.

I read Lerner’s book over a year ago. At the time, I tried to follow her advice, although clearly there’s still much work to be done to overcome my fears, to identify my purpose, to find my voice. There is still a lot of ambivalence.  At the same time, as much as I  struggle with writing, I can’t seem to give up on it, either.