We Are Not the Normals

Whether because of age or circumstance, the place that writing--or really any creative act--maintains in my life has shifted, refocused.

I can now acknowledge that during my 20s, I needed others to acknowledge me as an artist, as someone different than the normals. Special because the writing I strove to accomplish every day set me apart.

I thought that's how artists of any discipline behaved.  

Now in my, ahem, mid-to-late forties, creative work and meditative practice are virtually synonymous, and the thought of being outwardly acknowledgement seems....odd. Wrong, even. The practice has become the reward, and I know that to be a creative person in no way separates me or sets me apart or makes me special. 

There are no normals. Just us. 

On Advice of Council

I used to be better about taking time out for purely aesthetic experiences.

Granted there are legitimate obstacles to doing that these days: I have two young sons, a more than full time day job, a home and family which are certainly blessings but they bring with them more responsibilities and tasks in a given day than I once had.

Days, as you all well know, have a tendency to flow one to the other in a rush if we don’t pay attention.

Still and all, I should like to be better about taking time out to listen to music, take in a film (do they still make films; not movies, like the kind that I take my kids to, but actual films?), read some poetry or spiritual texts and contemplate.

It’s not fair to compare my life now to when I was in college, or to those rough years immediately afterward when I was apprenticing my writing (and being absolutely broke in the process). And yet I do miss giving over entire hours if not days to creative, artistic and aesthetic experiences. I miss that primal hunger.

The world being what it is, chasing beauty while we can is essential.

Poem, Poetry, Poet

Although I’m passionate about poetry, and I have written a number of poems (which the world should be grateful I rarely share), I can’t claim to be a poet.

In college I recall being fascinated by the discourse surrounding Poem vs Poetry vs Poet. I hadn’t given the terminology much thought up to that point, but in these (now many) post-college years where I endeavor to write novels, short stories, blog posts, I still reflect on these terms.

In my mind the definitions go something like this:

Poem – The artifact, the work itself

Poetry – The act and art of writing poems

Poet – The person performing poetry in order to create poems

Current or former Literature scholars will have to correct this, but I seem to remember that it was the Romantic poet Coleridge, who while writing Kubla Kahn, identified within himself a preference for writing poetry over creating poems.

At the time, I probably bashed the poor opium addict for his failure to finish a poem and get it out into the world, but now, when work and life threaten to consume most if not all of my time, I’m much more sympathetic to Coleridge’s plight.

We are, as writers, often addicted to the act of writing, the process of it. We’re collectively much worse at finishing our projects, calling them done, pushing them into the light for others to read and experience, and yes, judge.

In that space where poem, poetry and poet flow as confluence within us, we favor the rough incompleteness, the perpetual state of being unfinished. I understand why we do this—why I do this—and I wonder if it’s basal human nature, fear or something else.

Rules for Writing – Rule #8 – Thou Shalt Know When to Trust Thy Self

In the film When Harry Met Sally (still the only Romantic Comedy that matters), the character of Sally explains how she is decidedly not high-maintenance by referring to herself as simply ‘wanting things the way she wants them.’

That’s easy enough to understand, isn’t it?

As writers we are, alas, always learning. We never ‘get there’ and every project set before us presents us with challenges unique and particular to the project. Added to that is the complication that we need feedback from others before we release our ‘completed’ projects into the readership wilds. These notes can be high-level and conceptual, or these notes can be minute, specific, nit-picky, painfully on-point.

Recent New Yorker pieces by John McPhee (Writer Extraordinaire) and Mary Norris (Comma Queen) instruct the writer on how to conduct oneself when constructing works amidst the critical flood-plane 

Style, which flows from big concept down to comma placement, from blueprint to individual nail as it were, must be alternatively unique and standard. We must uphold, and we must innovate. This is no less true of the writers as it is of those who edit our work.

In Norris’ words: ‘One of the things I like about my job is that it draws on the entire person: not just your knowledge of grammar and punctuation and usage and foreign languages and literature but also your experience of travel, gardening, shipping, singing, plumbing, Catholicism, Midwesternism, mozzarella, the A train, New Jersey.’

What’s fascinating is the implicit lesson that there is a certain amount of subjectivity when discussing style and grammar. There are rules. And then are…rules. Some are meant to be adhered to and some are meant to be challenged, fought against, broken.

For that latter category, the writer has to stand firm, to be high maintenance, and declare – I want it this way because I want it this way.

It’s not always the most advisable or defendable stance, mind you. I learned from my mentor Richard Cortez Day that consensus is important. If one person tells you a description is lazy or doesn’t make sense, you take note, but if five people tell you the same, you revise. Most of the time—probably 98 or 99 percent of the time—you should take the feedback your beta-readers and trusted opinion-givers provide and make the changes they offer.

But there are times to push back. There are instances when you the writer—because you are uniquely you and you think of things the way you think of them—wants it the way you want it.

High-maintenance? Of course. We're writers.

Traveling the Travails: The Decimation of a Writing Routine

I’ve blogged before that as a traveler, I have much to learn. Not just the mechanics of how to take care of myself while on the road, but more importantly, in maintaining a proper mindset. By nature, I prefer the stability of a regular, non-traveling routine – get up early to write, commute to work, exercise, head home for (chaotic) family time, watch TV, read, go to sleep. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Routine gives my creativity a place to return to; structure gives my imagination a place to ground itself.

In other words, I’ve attempted--however poorly I may have executed it--to live Gustav Flaubert’s quote: ‘Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so you may be violent and original in your work.’

(Note: I make a terrible bourgeois.)

So I’ve carved what we’ll call my Flaubert-ality into the canals of my brain, the tissue of my body, to such a successful degree that I think if I were to die this moment, my body would still shuffle onward, hitting all the points of my schedule perfectly. Triumph!

And now, of course, this is changing.

With my recent job switch, I’m now traveling on a regular basis (this is countered by my now being able to work from home when I’m home, which is another future area of adjustment). The travel, which will likely be weekly or bi-weekly air travel, is disruptive to all levels of my being all at once. There’s the time away from family, the effects of sleeplessness on inferior beds, there’s the impact on diet, there’s the inactivity and hours of sitting and talking.

Then there’s the loss of a defined writing time.

Like almost everything else with me, it comes back to my attitude, to my accepting what is over what I want or need it to be. Where once I would have railed against the torpedo that just exploded my meticulously-honed Flaubert-ality, I’ve decided to embrace this new challenge to my artistic existence. Traveling, and how one travels, is as much a mirror of how we wander this life as our creative or spiritual activities are. If I’m a terrible traveler (which if I’m honest is a fairly apt description) it’s because I allow circumstances beyond myself, circumstances that I ultimately can’t control, to disrupt my mindset.

Rather than despair, which would have been my reaction even a few years ago, I’m leveraging the factors playing in my favor to keep on my writing schedule so that I can get my next novel written. There’s technology, for one, which allows me to access my works in progress from wherever I may be. (Thank you Google Docs and/or Windows 360.) There’s the more fluid non-work time, and although I doubt that I can actually write in the evenings wherever I may be staying, I can at least read and research and otherwise prepare for the next morning’s writing session.

I’ve devoted my post-college years to controlling the activities and relationships surrounding my creative endeavors in the false belief that doing so would somehow protect my art-making time. This didn’t accomplish what I wanted. There’s no way to shield a creative act from the world in which it is made or from the circumstances that gestated it.

What of my lovely Flaubert-ality? What of being regular and orderly? I don’t know, but perhaps discipline—getting words onto the page—has less to do with being regular and orderly, and more to do with how well you travel.