Life in quarantine continues to surprise. What was once easy is hard. What was important has become peripheral. Ideas that floated as someday possibilities have acquired an urgency. Any future plans seem illusory.
This shift has affected my schooling. (I’m working on a Masters in Counseling.) With the move to remote learning went any desire or motivation to do the work. Assignments piled up and I could not care. I managed to finish the semester. But now I think about quitting the program.
My reading life has also suffered. (I’m not alone in that.) Choosing what to read is difficult. (I can’t bear anything current.) I go days without reading much. I am easily distracted. Older works and old favourites have become my best hopes.
But small joys have emerged. I began transcribing and then tweeting my great-great-grandfather’s diary. His name is Wilford. His daily entries between 1906 and 1910 are simple. He records the weather, what he did, and who he saw. There is lots of talk of manure hauling and log splitting. There is also a lot of socializing. I am finding comfort in his world and enjoy sharing it with others.
As for writing, well, here I am. Some desire to write has bubbled up again. But I’m not sure what that means. I don’t feel up to tackling anything big. Instead, I’m keeping it small and following Verlyn Klinkenborg’s advice to start with short sentences.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.