Happy 2016! I’m been considering how this blog might change in the new year, as its focus has surely shifted over time from reflections on travel and daily life to something…else.
Given time constraints these days, I am no longer able to compose weekly hidden city diary entries as I once did, and the spare moments I do [greedily] safeguard are spent writing pieces intended for publication elsewhere. Upon realizing this, I considered taking a hiatus from blogging, but I love this space and our conversations, and I don’t want to abandon them. I value your comments and having a means of exchanging thoughts on writing, life, travel, philosophy, love, aging and everything in between. This blog makes me feel connected to a larger world; I hope that you feel that way, too. For those of you reading and commenting for several years, thank you for sticking with me.
So, where do we go from here?
Lately, I’ve been thinking about exploring the hidden city of writing—not so much craft but inspiration and ideas. How is the concept for a work born? How does a writer develop her voice or mature a body of work? What influences (art, people, food, objects, etc.) or life experiences feed into a person’s writing, and what role do those encounters play when fixed on a page? How does journey, place and the physical world affect the inner world of creativity and writing—and how does writing refocus and reinterpret the human experience of the world?
Before any work begins, before any of these questions can be answered, a writer must create space. For me, story ideas are like plants—they need time and space to germinate and random thought to feed them (even when it seems like I’m not doing anything,) Ultimately, when they begin to peek through the topsoil of a writer’s consciousness, they also need unencumbered light and thoughtful tending to grow.
But before any of that, there must be clear soil to plant them in. A yielding, fertile planting row in the conscious.
Oftentimes, when ideas come, I’m working on something else. On rare occasions, I may set aside one unfinished piece to start another, or work on multiple pieces at a time, but generally, I allow my ideas to line up and wait their turn. Stewing actually helps; the longing to work on a certain piece creates excitement. Since I write both fiction and essay, I like to bounce back and forth between genres as I finish work, so it helps to have a list of the many ideas I could write about next. I find that each discipline informs the other, making my fiction more intimately reported and realistic, and my non-fiction more narrative and literary.
On any given day, I could be writing a fiction story that triggers a memory from childhood that sparks an idea for an essay. The memory may or may not be relevant to my current work, but it’s something I can’t let go of. It has teeth. The spark could be something that made me laugh or something related to heartbreak; it could be a beautiful building or natural setting, a realization about a relationship, a failure or loss, or even my latest comical irritation.The germ of a story idea usually begins with these types of reactions that make me think of something else, something surprising, an irritating grit of sand that lodges in my brain. I’ve learned to let those grains scratch at me for a while—I put them to the test of time. If an idea seems promising, I’ll write in my ever-present Molskine notebook, noting IDEA next to it so that I can file it away for future work.
For any of these ideas to implant, though, I must have mental space.
While I don’t believe in waiting for inspiration to write, I do believe in creating room to do so. In some instances, the work carries me of its own volition while in others I have to push myself to clear the desktop. Either way, I intentionally set aside time, energy and mental application. On the easy days, I am so entranced with writing that I can hardly tear myself away. During those times, writing is addiction—I obsess about a story or essay at all hours, sometimes even dreaming about it—and I can’t wait to get home from work so that I can return to it. Other times, when I’m struggling to understand what a piece is about or if I’ve hit a point I can’t get past, I have to call upon my inner dictator, who insists that I sit and write, just sit and write. It doesn’t have to be good, but it must be written. Now, go. Sit. Write. Write for ten minutes and see what happens. If it doesn’t work, move on to the next idea. Just. Write.
To create room in the garden for any new work, whether easy or not, you must rid the soil of rocks and weeds. This is the biggest one for me. It also relates to this year’s resolution.
As some of you know, I’ve struggled over the years to unite what I do creatively with what I do for a living, a common challenge. While I will never stop writing (or dreaming of making a living as a writer), I have come to the end of 2015 realizing how miserable I’ve made myself in failing to reconcile these two worlds. My discontent does not serve me creatively, not does it allow me to enjoy the positive aspects of my job, of which there are many. It turns out, my malaise just takes up an awful lot of space. A constant sense of grumbling discontent, which began as pebbles and rocks years ago, has turned into a boulder.
My resolution for 2016 is to set aside this massive boulder of discontent. (I figure, if I miss it so damned much over the next 12 months, I can pick up my misery again in 2017.) Work stress and transition made for a hard, dark end of 2015, but without it, I don’t think I could have come to this conclusion. After all, I had been dragging around this rock for many years that I was blind to how massive its burden had become. And so, rather than follow Sisyphus back up that hill time and again, I’m going to let the boulder roll down and come to rest outside of the field so that I can focus on growing something new.
It’s only been four days, but removing the boulder has already revealed many questions wriggling beneath: How married am I to my pain? Can I be happy not being miserable? Why have I hung on for so long trying to convince myself that I cannot be happy unless I’m writing all day, every day? Can I stop beating myself up for “selling out”? And, underlying all of this, what am I really afraid of? (Truthfully, I’m a little scared to find out.) All may not become clear in a year, but 2016 seems like a great time to start looking for answers. I hope you will come along with me on the journey and continue to share your thoughts and experiences as you have in the past.
So, how about it? What if we let the boulders roll aside? What if we till the soil, clear away the rubble, compost the spent material and make space for something new to grow? What may happen if we let in the light and sun where before there was only pressure and darkness?
WRITING EXERCISE #1
Stretch your creative muscles and join me in this exercise that I picked up in a recent class:
Write a letter to a stranger who you have unfinished business with. It could be someone you pass on the street every day or a person who you’ve had a brief exchange with—it could be someone you’ve never spoken to—but it must be someone you do not know well, yet have unresolved thoughts or feeling for. Fear. Admiration. Anger. Jealousy. Sympathy. Delight. Lust.
If you could pour out everything to them, what would you say?