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The Writing Life
This post for last in this series, even though I think it’s the most essential. I start each day with a writing prayer. If you know me, you will know I am not a terribly religious person. I was reared in a secular home and I have sort of found my own way spiritually. So when I say prayer, I mean it very loosely. I think of it as a sort of meditation, a way that we can connect simultaneously to ourselves and to something larger than ourselves.
I started my morning writing prayer out of a kind of desperation. The book just wasn’t happening. I knew it wasn’t dead. It looked dead. If it was a tree, it would be bare of leaves and the bark would be molting in big dry patches. But I snapped one of the branches and found live wood in the center, so all was not lost. One day, I was sitting at my desk with a fresh sheet of paper rolled into my typewriter, waiting miserably for the muse to find me. After an hour of nothing, I just typed out a prayer that was more like a plea. I begged for inspiration. I begged for just a paragraph or even just an idea for a paragraph. Something, Please. Amen.
The next day, I returned to the page and I was more mindful in my prayer. I wasn’t begging and pleading like a kid on Santa’s knee. Instead I tried to have a meaningful exchange with the Universe. To ask the Creator for the gift of Creation.
I start my daily prayer with a message of thanks and gratitude. I list all the things that have already been given to me to make this writing possible. When you think about it, we have already been given so much toward this dream. I give thanks for everything– the small writing table, the project idea. I remember that I am grateful that I woke up early enough to get some work in before work, and even that I woke up at all. I give thanks for my mentors. This morning I gave thanks for the cool breeze from the window because my air conditioning is not working and the room was so pleasant for writing.
What I give thanks for changes from day to day, but I always remember to express my gratitude for the gift of writing itself. By gift, I don’t mean talent, but just the joy and possibility writing offers me, as a human being. And then, I remember all of my ancestors and people all over the world who do not have the privilege of literacy.
When I start with gratitude, it reminds me how prepared I am already for this task. How much has already been given to me.
In the second part of my prayer, I ask for the qualities that I feel I lack. I ask for greater focus, discipline, and endurance. I also pray to be rid of toxic thoughts and feelings like ego, ambition, jealousy and fear. I ask to be purged. I ask that the story I am writing serve a higher purpose, that I be given words that will be healing to someone else.
Then, I ask permission to set down my responsibilities for a few hours while I write. I always imagine this plea in an African American vernacular. ”Lord, watch my stuff for me. Watch my pocketbook while I’m gone writing.” (Then I imagine myself setting down a very stylish bag crammed full to bursting.)
Lastly, I make myself comfortable in my chair, set my feel flat on the floor, and read the prayer aloud. I close my eyes, take a couple of deep breaths, open my eyes and begin.
Of all the writing rituals, this is the one that is the most meaningful. Since I have added this mindfully spiritual dimension to my practice, I have seen my ailing novel come to life. You could say that it is sprouting tiny green leaves.
I have often read about writers who can spend all day in their writing rooms, working on their novels like a 9 to 5. For me, I can never sit that long. When I was writing my first novel, I could sit for four hours, maximum. But now, as I work on my fourth, I found it difficult to keep my mind on my work for more than an hour at a stretch. What the heck happened? I’m no neuroscientist, but I think the internet happened. Since the advent of facebook, twitter, and smart phones, my mind has started to work differently. I had always been a multi-tasker, out of necessity, but in the last few years, it has become ridiculous, and ultimately destructive. Once I found myself eating lunch, reading a book a book, and playing Words With Friends all at the same time. I check email while I am talking on the phone. On a lunch date, I neaked glances at my phone while I friend was gone to the ladies. When I saw something awesome rather than study it, I thought: INSTAGRAM! Watching TV, I also solved Sudoku puzzles. To do so many things at once, I dipped into only the top layer of my experiences and constantly darting in and out. I was doing a lot of things, but I wasn’t doing any of them well. I tried to get back to my old way of doing things but my attention span was shot and I was incapable of that deep thinking that creativity requires. I knew I had to make a change.
If you have tried to reach me lately, you know what that change is. I am friend-zoning my smart phone. By that I mean, I still use it, but me and my iPhone are no longer in love. I avoid taking it it with me when I go out. If I am meeting a friend or going to a movie, that’s what I’m doing. Email can wait until I get home. When I see something awesome, I look at it and try and imprint it on my mind rather than distract myself thinking about what it will look like as a twit pic. Just being without my phone for a few days, it was really clear how different life is without a tiny computer in my pocket. Not being able to google everything makes me dig into my memory to remember song titles. If I have forgotten the name or location of a restaurant, I have to roam the streets of NYC looking for it. I feel like I am getting my main brain back.
And it is helping me get my writing mind back as well. As you may remember, I used to blog all the time, but then I stopped and I believe this is because I was always on twitter, communicating 140 characters at a time. It was fun, easy and more interactive than taking the time to construct a blog post. But you see, I’m back here in blogland and I really think it’s because I have changed my relationship with my smartphone.
But on to the writing ritual part of the post.
To build my stamina back up, I use my faithful egg timer. For the first week, I set the timer for 45 minutes. For 45 minutes I sat at the desk and tried. At first I was looking at it all the time and i couldn’t believe that only 15 minutes had passed. Slowly, I increased the time. An hour, an hour and a half. Now, I can sit and work for three hours, although I do get up and have a snack or two.
(And I don’t know that this counts as a ritual, it’s more of a habit, but I try not to look at any thing with internet connection until I have written for two hours. I turn off the WiFi card on my computer before I go to bed. I put my phone and iPad in airplane mode. If I need an alarm, I use a regular clock.)
I know this may seem crazy because we are in such a connected moment in history. But face it, writing a book is a crazy thing to do. It’s not a part of everyday normal life. Writers are outside of the fray. We do things differently.
I have become a journaling fanatic. I have three now, and am considering adding a fourth to the mix. This is what I consider my sanity writing. Yes, it takes precious time that I could be using for my project. Sometimes I consider it like tithing and other times I think of it like the stretching you do before exercising so you don’t hurt yourself. Either way, it must be done. Journal writing is a time to slow down and figure out what you think. It’s a place to write where you don’t worry about the quality of your prose, you just work out your ideas and explore your feelings. I recently looked over an old journal entry and almost every sentence began with “I”. Now, at a cocktail party it would make me a bore. In a story, it would be too one-track. In my journal that day, it was what I needed to do. Other times, I may hardly mention myself at all. It doesn’t matter. It’s a place of absolute freedom.
There are the three journals I keep, and descriptions of each:
JOURNAL #1: I call this my “journal-journal”. In this book I do more of a traditional diary keeping. I recount the events of the day before. I manage my to-do lists, record my dreams. Whatever, I feel like making a record of. I like this because it is my way to unburdening my mind of my life’s concerns, freeing me up to enter the imaginary world of my fiction. (It reminds me of the Morning Pages made popular by The Artists Way) All the teeny tiny worries that eat away at my peace of mind, I leave on the page.
JOURNAL #2: I call this one my “prayer book”. In this book I write a blessing, or a prayer for another person. I like it because it gives me room to be as generous as I would like to be with no worries about lack or deprivation.When you write a prayer for another person, you can wish for her whatever you would like to see her have– be it material, emotional or spiritual. When I buy lottery tickets, I fantasize about all the charities I would fund. When I write in the prayer book, it makes me realize that when it comes to my intention– my ability to give is limitless as though I have won a lottery of sorts. I can concentrate on one person and visualize any blessings or gifts for her. It is an exercise in abundance.
JOURNAL #3: This last one is the “project journal”. In this notebook, I write down my progress from the day before, and my plans for the writing day ahead. I also use it while I am writing to take notes on things that I worry that I may forget. At the end of each week, I read over the journal with my highlighter to bring my attention to things that are important. (There is a prayer/intention/mediation dimension to this too, but I will save it for a post all by itself.)
Journal writing takes me about an hour, but it has become an essential part of my process. One I am all journaled-up, I can look at my project with a certain confidence and readiness. I feel like I have real purpose.
I used to be a coffee addict and when I was writing hard, even more so. If I was going to an artist colony, I would even take myself through the torture of coffee detox, so that I could start up again at the colony with that full-rev. I think I liked that speedy feelings of being amped up on caffeine, writing like a demon. When I was at MacDowell, I bought a 42 once thermos that I would fill with coffee and suck it all down. But now, I have really started to think more closely about what I put into my body and how it affects my writing.
For now, I have drastically cut down on the coffee. (Just a little sip in the morning.) The coffee rush was almost like that tequila shot that convinces you that you are the greatest dancer in the world. Coffee was my liquid courage and I incorporated it into my writing ritual for years. But lately, I have been wanting to write a little more slowly and thoughtfully.
I’ve also tried my best to lay off the sugar and the wine the day before. When I avoid sugar and alcohol, I sleep better and wake up better. And then I have better writing day. To figure out what is, and isn’t working, I recommend keeping a food/drink diary, when you record what you eat and then how you feel in the morning. You may see that there are some things that don’t agree with you, but you didn’t realize it. One of the key elements in creating effective rituals, is becoming very mindful of your own body and mind. Get quiet and listen to yourself.
This is not to say that I don’t indulge, but I am aware of the effects of my choices. I suppose what my more mindful writing practice has shown me is that I have to think about my writing day all day long and not just when I am sitting at my desk. When I’m at dinner and I pass on that second glass of red wine, it’s part of my practice.
Everyone has somewhere that they prefer to write. There is a photo of Ann Petry that I love that shows her writing at her kitchen table. Over the years, I have written in a lot of different places. My very first novel, which was never published, was written in the ladies room on my break from my day job. My first published novel was written in a closet and also on a patio so tiny, that I had to climb over the little table in order to get in and out. These days I have a writing room, but I have realized that I was not using my space in a way that was fostering my writing.
When I selected this apartment, I had to decide which of the two bedrooms would be the writing room. There was the sunny room up front, or the slightly less appealing room in the back. I decided that the best room would be the writing room. This decision made me feel good about myself and my commitment to my work. I bought a desk, and some filing cabinets. But I also installed a futon to be used as a guest bed, if necessary.
This is an example of the ways that we can undermine our own goals. Putting the guest bed as a permanent fixture to my writing room was my way of sharing my writing time/space with other people. Look at it symbolically. When other people had needs, it would be taken out of my writing space. I have sometimes had long-term guests and I would wake up and have coffee and feel like my writing room was being held hostage. I would be frustrated and testy, and my guests would be bewildered. After all, I had invited them.
This is not to say that that I will no longer have guests, but I will not have a guest bed in my writing space. I bought an airbed, which can be set up for guests (and it will probably be in my writing room), but the energy is different now. This room is a dedicated writing room. It’ s not a writing-slash-guest room. You know, I think that is part of what makes writers colonies so appealing, the gift of a writing space that is only for writing.
I know that everyone doesn’t have the space to have a room only for writing, but maybe you can set up a corner of a room. A table that everyone knows not to touch because it is your space. If you work at a coffee shop or at a library, is there someway you can make it plain to yourself that you are in a physical space set aside for your work? Maybe you can bring certain items with you, a favorite mug, paperweight, or some other talisman? You need something that makes it clear who you are and what you are here to do.
Now, on to the ritual.
For me, it’s important that I set up my space the day before. My desk has a glass top, so I wipe it down with windex the night before. I set out the pens, pencils, typewriter I will be using. I make sure the pens have ink, that the typewriter has plenty of ribbon. I put water in the pitcher. I get everything just the way I need it so I can write. This way, I am committing to writing the night before. When I wake up, my plan is in motion. There is nothing in my way.
If you work away from home, you can still do this preparation ritual, by getting your bag ready the day before. Make a checklist of everything you need for your writing day and go to bed with your bag packed.
I have never really been one for rituals. As a matter of fact, I have argued against them, believing that they can trigger writers block. After all, if you feel you can only write when facing east and wearing your lucky socks, what happens when one sock gets eaten up in the dryer? But I am not learning the difference between ritual and superstition.
Sometimes people ask me about my “process” but what they really are looking for is ritual. I see process as something that happens on the page, but ritual is a serious of steps I take to prepare myself for writing. Unlike superstition, which sort of implies that certain random details will cast a protective spell, a ritual is something that it performed with intent and purpose. It is can be spiritual, but not exactly magical.
I have been having a hard time with my writing over the last few months. I was showing up, but the muse didn’t join me. I tried to tell myself it was a job and only fools wait for inspiration. So I just sat down and put some words on the page. But it wasn’t the writing that I needed and it wasn’t bringing me any pleasure. So I stopped showing up and the days and weeks ticked by. My deadline passed. I wasn’t sure what to do.
But all that has changed and I really think it’s because I have added ritual and meaning to my writing process. it’s complicated so I don’t want to overwhelm with one post. For the next couple weeks, I will share one aspect of my writing rituals and explain why it has been helpful for me.
The thing to keep in mind as you read is that my rituals may not work for you, but they might! Also, I hope that talking about my ritual may inspire you to devise rituals of your own. Because it’s summer and my schedule is flexible, my rituals are kind of elaborate and time consuming, but I will have to figure out how to streamline them when school starts. The trick is to figure out what works for you and you life.
My new deadline for a tight draft of my new novel is Labor Day and I really believe that I can make it. For the first time I feel confident and in-the-zone. And it’s all because of the rituals. So watch this space. I’ll start posting the on Monday.
Yesterday the great writer Maya Angelou passed away. I saw the news on facebook and I was felt so sad that I put away my writing, made myself some cocoa, and called up a good friend. It was inevitable, I know. She was 86. She lived a good life. All of that. I read that she had cancelled a speaking engagement a couple of days ago, so she was active all the way to the end. It was a good life, and she enjoyed every moment of it. This is the kind of passing that calls for one of those New Orleans style funerals where you dance instead of weeping, or at least dance while you weep. But still. I had to lay down for a while.
When I think about Maya Angelou, I think about I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. I hardly ever teach it anymore because the students have read it already by the time they get to college. For my black students especially, it is as essential as To Kill A Mocking Bird. And speaking of my students, how many of the have tattoos reading “Phenomenal Woman” or “And Still I Rise.” She was a beloved writer, and a beloved citizen of the community, and a true citizen of the world.
Her life was a magic trick. She did the impossible thing. She looked at the world clear eyed and without sentimentality. She talked about rape back when folks didn’t talk about it. She talked about single motherhood back when “nice girls” didn’t. I read all six volumes of her autobiography when I was probably too young for them. My mother had them and I was a naturally nosy child. It was my first glimpse into womanhood and the life of an artist, the life of a black woman artist. But the impossible thing is that she did it, wrote about it, and continued to live a glorious life. I see the photos of her dancing, singing, wearing dark shades, or a cool hat and I think– Still, she rises. And she makes me believe that it’s possible to honor your vision, tell hard truths, make mistakes, and still be worthy of great love and great joy.
Maya Angelou. We will miss her. And there will never be another.
[video] My video chat with the LATimes about Dr. Angelou
Well, in about ten minutes, I’ll be heading to the airport. My experience at Ucross has been wonderful. The accommodations were perfectly suited to my needs and the food was excellent. My co-colonists were an inspiring cluster of writers, visual artists, film makers and musicians. Art was in the air and I breathed it all in.
The retreat lasted 28 days, but when you subtract the Thanksgiving holiday (and my birthday) let’s say it was 24 days. Then I caught the flu, so that took it down to say, 21. I got a lot done in those days. By a lot I mean word count, but also I got a lot done in that I figured out some important questions having to do with my book. I put a lot of new pages in, but I took a lot of pages out. I’m leaving feeling satisfied, but also eager to keep working.
I think I have to face the fact that a novel takes on long time to write. As much as I complain about NaNoWriMo, I understand the fantasy of having a book done by Christmas. It’s what happens when you don’t want to write, as much as you want to have written. This month out here in prairie has helped me remember what’s important, what I love about what I do. Being out here has helped me here my own voice again. So I am grateful. #blessed.
So I have spent my first week at Ucross, an artist colony in Wyoming. I’ve only been here two days, but already I feel my spirits lifting. I credit it to the overwhelming spirit of abundance that infuses everything here.
It starts with the landscape. This is big sky country. When I look out of the window of my studio early in the morning, I witness the miracle of a purple sunrise over a meadow that stretches as far as I can see. (If you looks closely at the photo you can see it peeking in the window.) This morning, I put on my puffy and sat out on my deck, sipped coffee and just tripped on the splendor.
The rest of the feeling of abundance comes from the colony itself. In the past I have visited retreats that come with a long list of rules telling you what all you can’t do– more like a boarding school than a true retreat. But when we arrived here at Ucross, the terrific staff first showed us around making sure we knew where to find the tea station that featured so many varieties that I was tempted to give up coffee and join the #teamtea. And then we were told that we could take tea with us to our studio. Take the whole box you want. Same for coffee which was in it’s own cabinet, stuffed to the brim. The even found an 1970s IBM typewriter for me to use! The vibe here is like this: tell us what you need to create. My needs are modest, really. A sunny room, a big desk, coffee, and cookies if you have them. But what I see I also need is the feeling that there is enough of everything. No need to ration. That feeling of abundance has already influenced my work.
My challenge when I get home to learn to recreate the feeling of abundance. How to feel that there is plenty and not worry about scraping the bottom. I think the answer is going to have to be spiritual rather than material. Because in the material world, there seldom is quite enough. The in the spiritual realm, there is infinity.
After visiting half a dozen artists colonies and retreats, I have finally figured out what makes a successful retreat and what makes a for a dud. Like romance, part of it is physical and the rest in in your head. Let me explain.
I have been a guest at a whole range of retreats– from full service pamerfests like MacDowell (New Hampshire) where they bring you your lunch in a basket, to Gilbraltar Pointe Center (Toronto) that was a repurposed elementary school, to my recent stay at La Muse in Southern France. I spent three weeks in Switzerland in 2004 in a set up that was kind of like The Real World, International Nerd Edition. I’ve slept in a haunted mansion, I’ve written in a converted barn. Sometimes I wrote like a maniac and other times I didn’t accomplish a gosh darn thing. And finally, finally, I think I understand what went right and what went wrong.
The physical space matters: I write best when I am in a tidy room with a lot of light. I need a large desk to spread all my stuff out and I need a comfortable chair. And I need not to feel cold. I prefer to write in a different room than the one I sleep in. So, basically, I know myself. I know what I like. Things will go better if I’m comfortable. When you get an acceptance to a colony, mention this to the people and they may be able to accommodate you.
The physical space matters even more when your head is not together. There have been times in my life when the story was just bursting out of me. I wrote sentences on napkins, I woke up in the middle of the night with ideas. (I wrote my first novel in a closet!) When I am in The Zone, all I want from an artist colony is for people to leave me the hell alone so I can do my thing. But when I am not already in a creative frenzy, when the story is not cooperating, I need the environment to woo my muse. I need the creative equivalent of candlelight and Luther Vandross.
The retreat should take up less energy than being at home. Now THIS is the major issue. I have noticed that the fewer services a retreat provides, the more women tend to be in attendance. I think this is because for a lot of women, just being away from their kids is a luxury. (A good friend I met at a colony that I didn’t love, answered all my complaints with “have you noticed that my kids are not here? I’m golden!”) A retreat that is “self catering” (that means no food provided) is fine because because many women find cooking only to feed themselves to be such a treat. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. I was recently at a self-catering retreat in France and between the cooking, hanging my laundry on the line, fetching water from the spring, constantly keeping the fire lit and living in a communal situation, I was wiped out from effort of just staying alive. In my real life, I live in New York, alone. When I am hungry, there is take out. There is drop off laundry service. I have a writing room in my home with an excellent desk and chair. Nobody has keys to this apartment but me. So, the retreat wasn’t so retreaty because it was so hectic. But consider if I was on this retreat five years ago when I was used to working way more hours and I had a lot of personal obligations that were eating up my time. I would have been delighted to live the “simple life” in southern France is it meant I could actually hear myself think, and I would have written up a storm. You gotta a) know yourself and b) know what you’re getting into.
You have to push yourself even when the circumstances are not ideal. This is not my strong suit. I am capable of spending a lot of time and energy being mad. I can get mad because my room is not up to par. I can get mad because, over wine one of the colonist said something jaw-droppingly offensive. (Oh the stories I could tell! You wouldn’t believe it.) But at the end of the retreat, if you don’t get anything done, only YOU suffer, so you must try and push through whatever isn’t working, just like in real life… but that doesn’t sound like much of a retreat, does it?
Tomorrow, I am heading to Ucross, a writers residency in Wyoming. All my friends who have been insist that it is the pamperfest I have been waiting for. The food has been described as “spectacular”. The grounds “gorgeous.” I’m all packed and I think that I am in a good place in terms of being ready to write. I don’t think I am at the phase where all I need to peace and quiet, but I won’t pitch a conniption about scratchy towels.
Watch this space. I’ll report back with pictures and updates. This next month is really the home stretch for the novel. I need to write “THE END” by Christmas. I’ve let too much time slip away. It’s time to do this thing.