“Is anyone else having trouble focusing?” I’ve talked with a few people these past weeks and months who’ve had difficulty with their writing. “I sat in front of my computer for three hours and only wrote one sentence,” someone noted on an online writing forum I follow. “Same,” another chimed in.
I’ve been stymied by an article on wilderness and literature that I signed a contract to write over a year ago with a deadline of May 30, 2020. But anything, everything, seems more important than writing. A fly landing on the curtain rod. The hum of the air conditioner. The dishes stacked in the sink. That old trunk I’ve been meaning to clean out for the last ten years. The easy chair on my front porch. Maybe I’ll sit there and read for a while. I plop down and my eyes close instantly.
My front porch writing space in Oak Park, IL
As the days pass, the article recedes into the nowhere of pandemic worry. I swallow my shame and loathing and write repeated messages to the editors—people I admire—requesting extensions. More than once I’ve struggled with dark moods that left me disoriented and paralyzed. When that happened before, I broke my work down into small segments, baby steps.
Which is how I’m finally able to get through this task. My process:
I first did a long free write without looking at notes or books. It helped me take stock of what I know and don’t know, helped me find a voice. Then I mapped it out.
Everything in one folder, previous writing and notes along with articles I’ve annotated.
I approach outlining like it’s a piece of art. I don’t outline everything I write, but when I do, I use OmniOutliner, which lets me move things around easily. With this piece of the outline, I didn’t care too much about the hierarchy. I was mostly interested in grouping ideas and quotations.
In between many naps and online shopping for things I don’t need like moss from Etsy and coyote urine to keep the squirrels away from my plants. This kind of radical editing takes a week or more. I also cleaned up the footnotes.
I read aloud several times to make sure the rhythms are just right. I also find a lot of repetition I can excise.
When I’m finished, what I realize is this: I love the discoveries, both intellectual and personal, I’ve made in the struggling and the writing.
What small, incremental steps are you taking to keep moving forward in your writing and work?
7-11-2020|Comments Off on Organizing a Difficult Draft
Friday, June 12, Petra Kuppers and I kicked off our first event in the Practices of Hope Reading Series. I was a little nervous about it, being the technical guru without really knowing what I was doing. Petra, consummate moderator and host, took us on a real journey. The night began with the poet and Anishinaabemowin language teacher Margaret Noodin reading her poem in both Anishinaabemowin and English. We ended with Jennifer Sinor’s thoughts on how “speculative,” commonly used to describe science fiction, is a tool for nonfiction writers, too.
When you walk into the wilderness, you’re supposed to collect things. You should notice plants and even pluck a few for your journal. You should jot down the names of trees. Should write your observations of the blue jay and the black bear. Should chronicle your trail stories of getting lost, choosing a campsite, and appreciating grand vistas.
I knew all this in 2004, when I walked into the Selway-Bitterroot and Frank Church wilderness for the first time. But the area held two things against me. 1) This was where my great-grandfather and my grandfather came in the late nineteenth-century. And what they left behind was a dark past I didn’t want to confront. 2) This area was now the largest wilderness area in the lower 48, and, for that reason, important to American identity and political policy, a geographical and socio-political giant I couldn’t grasp.
So instead of exploring those more difficult private and public issues by collecting memories, plants, and political polemics, I started collecting fire. Whenever I went out in the woods with friends, family, or students, I snapped photos of flames, eye white or buttery yellow, and coals, meaty red or cloud gray.
I consider myself a collector of fire. What happens around a fire during a backpacking trip–intimacy with earth and other people. A campsite has no spirit until it has fire. Once I watched my sister-in-law braid my daughter’s hair in dozens of strands around a fire while camped in the bosom of a Canadian glacier. Once I spent a week with fire fighters in the backcountry and sat on the sleeping bag of a dark-eyed smoke jumper during a heavy rainstorm, listening to him talk about fire in Alaska. Fire is irony. It purifies and destroys. It is heat, it is passion, it is ashes, it is ruin. To stay alive, it consumes itself.
Unlike memories and plants, fire, like snow, is impossible to collect.
Moments of Snow
Nothing but silent snow falling, snow not making a sound, like a hand that writes to cover everything up. Snow falls right on the window, falls white on the piers, it lies down a moment, then disappears to another world–and you miss it a lot.
from “Snowflakes” by Jiri Orten, July 1940 Translated by Lyn Coffin and Leda Pugh
6-10-2020|Comments Off on Collecting, Narrative, and the Impossibility of Fire
Supporting women’s writing with these newly released books–
Amy Klein, The Trying Game. I recommend Klein’s book, whether you’re going through fertility treatment or not. Especially in the midst of a pandemic, this book will give you comfort and joy. Klein’s ability to explain medical knowledge, not to mention her curious and unflinching look at the interface between her raw emotions and her medicalized body, is just the medicine we need right now. As her book makes clear, in times of medical emergency, we are all trying our best, even as the crisis is trying us. I adored her prose—funny, ironic, energetic, well-researched. She is one of those writers with perfect pacing, perfect pitch, who delivers information with such punch and verve. The parts where she narrates her own story are the best, for example the part when her doctor tells her, after yet another miscarriage, to “keep trying.” (Her response is perfect!) Twenty-five years ago, I did a stint with a fertility doctor. It was three years after my daughter was born, and–nothing. Nothing happened and I gave up. I had the vague knowledge that fertility was a mystery, and now, after reading Klein’s book, I can see what I was up against back then, which I found endlessly fascinating.
Jenn Hollmeyer, Orders of Protection. Hollmeyer’s book is amazing! What caught my eye is that the book won the prestigious Katherine Anne Porter prize. The stories are brief but they pack in tons of feeling and significance. All of the characters are looking for some kind of protection—how do they go about that? What do they find? One of my favorites is the “The Ice River History Museum, Formerly Saint Catherine’s Convent”—which has such stunning and evocative lines as: “The docent gestured to a headless mannequin modeling a faded habit.” I mean—this is an image out of a dream, dripping with symbolism but also thoroughly concrete in its place in the story. I won’t give away the end of this story, but it is beautiful and startling, as all of them are. This is my kind of book. Highly recommend.
Madeline Dyer, This Vicious Way. As a teacher of creative writing and literature, I’m always looking for suggestions from my students, especially the categories of science fiction, fantasy, and thrillers—not usually my genre. With their promptings, I read Madeline Dyer’s This Vicious Way, and was blown away by the character development. At first I thought I wouldn’t understand the dystopian world, since this is Book Two in a series, and it makes use of the world Dyer built in an earlier series. Happily that wasn’t the case. Far from it. The world of epic struggle between the Untamed Ones and the Enhanced Ones is crystal clear; never once did I lose sight of the main character, Inga. I was hooked from the moment I was introduced to her in the first chapter swimming in an ocean as a young child, and in subsequent chapters when she’s grown and forced to become an assassin, to kill in gruesome ways. She struggles to turn the tables, to assassinate the assassins and reunite with her family (with plenty of heart-wrenching plot twists along the way). What I liked best about the book is how it toggles between past and present, how it even peers into Inga’s dreams and nightmares, which gave me an ever-evolving sense of Inga’s history and her motives. I empathized with her completely. I plan to include this in my syllabus next time I teach the prose fiction class.
Erin Khar, Strung Out. I loved this book. Khar is a companionable narrator, a voice I wanted to spend time with as she navigates the highs and lows of addiction, trauma, need, family, friendship, and parenthood. She’s searingly honest about deep-down parts of herself–she weaves moments of brutal loneliness with those of beautiful tenderness. I happened to read Strung Out during the current pandemic, so it’s no surprise that I was struck by her account of 9/11, the moment when she realizes her father may have been in one of the twin towers. I could relate especially to how she describes the “shock” and “paralysis” she feels during that event even as she goes about her routine tasks – a 12-step meeting and dinner with friends. What I loved about the book overall is how Khar delves into complex issues with an engaging, page-turning narrative style.
Rebecca Winn. One Hundred Daffodils. First, I want to say that this is a book I love holding in my hands. It’s opulantly produced, with a rich, creamy cover, the kind of book I like snuggling up with on my couch, in bed, outside on the porch (now that the weather is nice), and even in the car. It’s filled with beauty–both physically in the author’s garden and spiritually in her internal transformations–even amidst scenes of shattering and uncertainty. The book is a reminder that we can find hope right where you are, that small acts of attention bring peace.
Laura Zam, The Pleasure Plan. Every sentence in this book radiates goodwill, hope, and courage, even when she’s writing about dark topics. This crossover book (memoir, nonfiction, and self-help) moves forward at a lovely pace while it also flashes seamlessly back in time just when the reader needs backstory or insight. To get a sense of her wonderfully crisp and forthright prose, take a look at this passage where she talks about a moment when she reflected on men she’d dated. She felt as if she was “a monstrous creature, in the reptilian family, with cold skin and blood.” Hence, her journey toward self-discovery, intimate love, and sexual healing. I appreciated how Laura confronts her childhood abuse amidst her search for love. The story of meeting her husband (from her New York Times “Modern Love” column) is retold in the book, and it is just as tender and lovely as ever. She goes on to chronicle her recovery, her visits to gynecologists, psychologists, erotic healing practitioners, hypnotists, and other off-beat therapies with humor and a beautiful tenacity, one that also leads to self-awareness. I read this book over two days and I’m sure I’ll return to it again. Pure pleasure! (Please visit Laura Zam’s website where you’ll see all the other incredible activities this woman does.)
5-24-2020|Comments Off on What Are You Reading? My Top Picks This Month
Today–a writing day, a revision of my book about the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. I’ve been working on this story for fifteen years and I finally think I know what it’s about. On long writing days I move venues every few hours, from dining room to study to family room to coffee shop. Today’s gorgeous weather and my 100-year-old grape made the perfect office.
I’ve been rereading Faulkner–The Sound and the Fury–and some Thomas Bernhard–The Loser. A study in contrasts! Faulkner is stingy with his reader (or that’s how I felt last night as I read in bed), and Bernhard generous, or maybe effusive is a better word, which is how he’s able to unravel something as ineffable as the death of someone you don’t know well:
So many in his circle had already died, he said, so many relatives, friends, acquaintances, none of these deaths ever shocked him, but Glenn’s death dealt him a deadly blow, he pronounced deadly with extraordinary precision. We don’t have to be with a person in order to feel bound to him as to no other, he said. Glenn’s death had hit him very hard, he said, I thought while standing in the inn. Although one could have predicted this death more certainly than any other, that goes without saying, so he said. Nonetheless we still can’t grasp it, we can’t comprehend, can’t grasp it.