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.

Rules for Writing – Rule #6 – Thou Shalt Do It Before You’re Ready to Do It

It took a few weeks for me to recognize that I was encountering the same concept—this idea that we must embark on a task, a project, a journey, before we feel we are ready—in a variety of areas of my life. With an inevitable confluence, many of the articles I was reading and many of the podcasts I was listening to, echoed this same idea.

Typically, I assign the concept of doing-before-knowing to my attempts at living a more present and mindful existence. One of the tenets of Buddhism, upon which a mindfulness practice heavily relies, is that you are ready to be mindful right now, you have what you need right here, there is no amount of training or preparation that can give you the inner resources that you don’t already possess.

In writing, doing-before-knowing can manifest itself in myriad ways depending on the writer. Maybe it means writing a novel before we’re ready. Maybe it means writing a character with a different ethnicity. Maybe it means finally writing that epic, book-length poem (God help you.)

Specific to writing—because it overlaps so with academic work—you can research yourself into paralysis. And, sorry to break it to you, but you will never know everything about your subject. There will be holes. Those holes—however small—will betray themselves in your work. Yeah, try to fill them, try to know what you can, but here’s the thing:

Writers are illusionists, enchanters, conjurers – not founts of encyclopedic knowledge.

Think over the most influential authors from your own life, and although you may well have learned a thing or two from them, that’s just a happy accident, because what we carry with us still is the residue of the spell that they cast upon us, the way they transported us, transfixed us. Tricked us into seeing our lives in a tweaked, technicolored way.

Do we need to climb a mountain in order to describe climbing a mountain? Experience helps, sure, but a litany of mountain-climbing details without artistic intervention is going to make readers want to gouge out their eyes with a crampon. The gimmick is to make the reader believe she is climbing a mountain, and there is no number of mountains you can climb that will prepare you to do that.

Practice instead the subterfuge. But be wary, for here, too, lies another trap. We all carry with us the ever-running ‘Rocky Montage’ where we locate our inner tiger-eye and overcome our fear and train and train and train AND THEN we go beat Clubber Lang in the ring. Sure, we all need to hone the fundamentals and, yes, there is validity to practice—because we will get better the more we do something—but remember: Clubber Lang putting the hurt on us is an essential part of the journey. We evolve by the surviving, the overcoming, not by what we knew before the match started.  

Attend to the skills of writing, pay attention to the details, learn what you can upfront, but if we want to write works that will transport readers—and these are the only works worth writing—hone how you incant, how you mystify, hone how you conjure that spell.

The ability to do so is already within you. 

You Complete Me: What is the Purpose of Art? (Answered in 500 Easy Words)

Gone are the days when I could ruminate about the whys and hows of my art.

It’s not that I lack the interest or even the tolerance (although I do certainly lack the time) or that I can’t navel-gaze with the best of them, but at some point along the way, the need to preoccupy myself with the engines driving my writing decreased from an incessant, back-firing clatter to a just audible background thrum.

So I was jolted into once again considering the topic when I listened to this interview with sculptor Dario Robleto, and the conversation turned to a question that Robleto continues to ask himself:

Can art finish something that’s never been finished?

As discussed in a previous post, we’re all familiar with (if not bored by) the trope of the artist as damaged human who turns to creating as a means to heal, as a means to salve some emotional wound or to deal with some mental dysfunction. The trope exists not only because of the attractive and convenient narrative, but also because of its inherent truth. Yes, most of us wanderers are wandering because we were at some point in our lives unmoored. Most (maybe all) eventually thrive from embracing this otherness that we perceive separates us from a ‘normal’ existence that everyone else appears to be living.

But if we can take the artist and his/her origin story out of the art object and do our best to consider the art by itself (yeah, yeah, I agree it’s nearly impossible but give it a shot, anyway) we are left with considering the purpose of that piece of art. Not the why but the what.

You drew that picture. You wrote that book. You composed that piece of music. Ignoring why and how you did it, what is that picture, book, music supposed to do?

For my part, I default to the same setting that I suspect most of us are switched to: I cogitate about and put more emphasis on the process rather than the product (art for art’s sake, man). In fact, I bet if I surveyed my own damned blog, I’d find in the often overlapping topics I tend to discuss—writing, spiritual wandering, parenting—more about the doing and less about the having done.

So, again, Robleto’s question.

Can art finish something that’s never been finished?

Is the answer to that question—dare we postulate—the purpose of art? Is the creative journey less about self-actualizing and more about impacting the world around us? Is the artist’s role, then, to discover the broken places outside of ourselves and bring wholeness and completion?

If so, our jobs just got a lot more complicated.

Novel Update and Excerpt from The Ten Vanished Memories of Charles McManus

In case you've forgotten, I am first and foremost a fiction writer. A fiction writer whose second novel is nearly complete.

The Ten Vanished Memories of Charles McManus is my 'fast' novel, meaning that it has taken only four years (and counting) to get to where I am now. Like I said. Fast. Absolutely screaming.

And where am I?

In the next couple of weeks (I'm planning for the end of the calendar year), the current draft will have exhausted my ability to edit/read/tolerate it any longer, which means that the thing will need to be released in its entirety out into the wilds of actual human readers. 

A few of you--OK maybe one of you--might be interested in what I've been working on, so I'm going to devote some more of my blog posts to novel excerpts. If you have the inclination, please let me know what you think.

Thank you, as always, for checking in.

***

Despite the hauntings and the random trashing of his possessions at his studio apartment, McManus still managed to arrive at the bakery, prepare the flats of bread, muffins and pastries, and hit his delivery times. After work, he found himself staying at the bars later than he wanted because, thanks to Carmella’s ghost, his apartment wasn’t the sanctuary it had once been. So he took to wandering the streets of downtown Portland, chain-smoking cigarettes and waving off the dealers who approached. He spent hours staring at the Willamette River, the same oft-polluted waterway where he had years ago tossed his wedding band when Carmella and he had lived downriver in Eugene. He watched traffic crawl across the Hawthorne or Marquam bridges, feeling as if he existed in some parallel dimension that lay alongside the living world. He simply didn’t know what else to do, or where else to go, so he gave himself over to wandering the night.

It was on one of these nights that he passed the storefront of a psychic reader. He had wandered past the cobalt, neon sign several times before, but on this particular night, after he had gotten home from work, he had discovered his clothes strewn about the bathroom floor, piled inside the tub and even crammed into the toilet. He called Carmella’s ghost ‘a crazy fucking bitch’ and stormed out. Why him? Of all the many people she could have confessed the desired location of her burial to, why had Carmella chosen him? Entrusting him with this information was a curse, and that was probably why she had picked him. In fact, he knew that was why she had picked him. Imparting personal knowledge was Carmella’s ultimate act of aggression, because once you knew a single fact about her, she could hate you for possessing this sliver of knowledge and lash out with no restraint.

Without thinking on the matter further, McManus entered the psychic’s shop.

Candles the width of mailing tubes lit the space, and ornate cloth riddled with paisleys draped along every flat surface. In the center of the room sat a round table surrounded by chairs that had been carved with stars, moons and serpents. A heavy curtain blocked access to the back, and florescent light leeched behind the gap between floor and fabric. He guessed that was the office behind there. He cleared his throat and asked if the business was open. The florescent light switched off.

A woman threw open the curtain. She was taller than McManus, and all skinny angles and bony lines doused in a clingy silk outfit; he guessed she was in her fifties.

“I am Saskia,” she said. “Sit.”

He hoped there might be some negotiation of price so that he could politely back out, but she sat and scrutinized him. An open expression of shock crossed her bony face.

“You are haunted,” she said, her voice rising in both pitch and volume, “a spirit clings to you. Someone who shared time with you…you and she were not close but you were trapped together. Caged.”

McManus settled in and said, “My ex-wife. She’s been at me for over a week now. Haunting me, like you said.”

Saskia studied the space just above his right shoulder.

“She has no peace,” the psychic said as if Carmella were telling the other woman her mind. “She has nowhere else to go. Spirits usually cling to a place. This one has attached herself to your memories. She feeds on them.” Saskia slurped her lips into her mouth to make the accompanying sound effect.

“I need to send her a message. She wanted me to remember something. I have. Now I need to tell her what I’ve remembered so she’ll go away.”

Saskia said, “I trust that you have already told her what it is she wants to know.”

“Fuck yes.”

Saskia quit the table and returned with a green, glass sea ball the size of a volleyball and used to float the nets of Japanese fishing vessels an ocean away. She set the sphere atop a kickstand-like wood perch at the center of the table and slid into her seat.

“Give me your hands.”

“Is that supposed to be a crystal ball?”

Saskia glared at him and said, “I know my trade, and I know the tools of my trade. Sea-forged glass is the most powerful there is. Would you like to communicate with your ex wife now?”

McManus slid his hands to the woman’s. She clenched them and said,

“Look into the green.”

He watched the orb cloud over, not with smoke but with condensation. What had moments ago been transparent was now opaque and impenetrable. Fogged.

“I don’t see anything.”

She squeezed his hands again until they hurt, imploring him to shut up. He continued to study the sea ball.

He half-expected Carmella’s disembodied head to appear, like the crystal balls in the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, but what he saw in short order was his apartment. The view was from the ceiling, gazing down on the futon. Records cascaded to the floor, his stereo tipped and fell, and his bedding zipped this way and that as if a giant, invisible, and pissed off toddler had been loosed upon his sheets and pillows.

“Goddammit,” he said.

“Tell her,” Saskia said, “tell her what she wanted to know.”

“Fine,” McManus said. “Carmella, I know where you want to be buried.”

The dervish dance of destruction ceased. Saskia gasped and then convulsed as if by seizure.

He wasn’t sure what was afflicting the woman, but McManus pressed on and said,

“I can contact your new husband. Your current husband, I mean. Let him know the specifics. Everything will be OK.”

Saskia spoke between ragged breaths, “No, no. She says that you must do it.”

“Do what?”

“You must be the one to move her body.”

McManus tallied the reasons such a scheme would not be possible. He picked the most salient from the dozen or more that presented themselves.

“She isn’t my problem anymore. This doesn’t need to involve me.”

The image of his apartment within the sea ball receded, and the condensation cleared, giving way again to transparent, emerald-hued glass. Saskia, who was apparently free now from whatever affliction had seized her, slumped in her chair.

“You are not telling me something,” she said. “This spirit is powerful. Vengeful.”

“She visited me,” McManus pointed in the direction of the bar. “During Happy Hour. She sat down and talked to me. She looked OK, you know, for being dead.”

Saskia sat forward. “That is not good for you.”

McManus told her about how Carmella’s every appearance would result in the loss of one of his memories of her, but hauntings, hauntings were free.

Saskia pushed out her bottom lip.

“She is reckless. Stealing someone’s memories will have unintended consequences for her. And as for you, she has no qualms about putting your sanity in danger. She must truly despise you.”

McManus waited for the woman to say more or perhaps contradict the information he had received from Carmella, but Saskia didn’t.

“I thought you were going to help,” McManus said.

“I have done all I can tonight,” she said, “Fifty dollars, please.”

“Hold up. We can’t, I don’t know, exorcise her or some such shit?”

Saskia studied the empty air to his right again, and said, “She’s already decided what it is you must do for her, and she’s committed that request to a Universe that means to enforce that decision. Neither of you will know any rest until you do this thing for her. You can ignore her request at your own peril. That is all.”

He made for the door.

“Wait.”

McManus turned; Saskia’s expression had gone again to that stoned, constipated pleading.

“A sole offering sacrifices one but saves two.”

“What was that?”

Saskia shook off whatever force had enthralled her and slid behind the curtain. McManus waited a moment longer just to be sure the psychic was done with him, then he walked home to his ruined apartment.

 

NaNo-What Now?

November is NaNoWriMo.

What the hell is that, you ask? (I did.) You can find out more about it here: http://nanowrimo.org/ but the gist is that it's a writing contest where participants strive to write as much of a novel as they can in one month's time. 

Maybe the rest of you aren't as erudite and cultured as I am (ahem), so I'll admit that I was initially skeptical (perhaps even dismissive) of the idea. NaNoWriMo embraces anyone who has a month to throw word count after word count at it, and there's a hint of favoring production over almighty art. It's purposefully democratic. And one could extend its philosophy to the rise of self-publishing and e-books.

I wasn't sure of this at first. I carried with me a very outmoded idea of what the art and craft of writing should be. 

But I was wrong. Wrong about self-publishing and wrong about NaNoWriMo.

The awesome and insanely prolific Beth Shelby introduced me to NaNoWriMo a couple years ago. Along with Stephen King's On Writing, I credit the NaNoWriMo primer  No Plot, No Problem for prompting me to actually complete my novel The Ten Vanished Memories of Charles McManus. This is my mea culpa.

For those of you who aren't writers and who don't care to be, you should know that we writers often have neurotic tics. (Understatement.) Most of us ritualize the act of writing. This is an understandable adaptive behavior when you consider that writers spend much of their time caught within the mystery of their own writing process - be it in their own heads or at a computer or some combination in-between. Sometimes the ideas and words flow with ease, sometimes they flow and we can't stop them, and sometimes the words never come and we beg and we plead for any scrap of an idea.

One of my favorite examples of writing neurosis in action is that of the great TV writer David Milch. In a very excellent New Yorker profile, those of you unfamilair with why writers are such freaks can marvel at Milch's tale of his time in a creative writing program when he would type and re-type the same pages, word for word, over and over again. Sadly, Milch's struggles make perfect sense to me.

One of my tics is that I will endlessly revise. Endlessly. I have revised my first novel, which is still in process, for over ten years. This isn't good. Yes, it's possible that I'm a great writer of the Donna Tartt variety who just takes forever to get a novel complete. But the much more likely scenario is that I'm stuck, and I'm too afraid to make the necessary changes or cuts or, the worst option, admit defeat and move on. 

NaNoWriMo changed me. So, OK, Ten Vanished Memories has so far taken me almost four years, and it's a short novel with a pretty clear narrative through-line, but the beauty and genius of NaNo is that it pushes you to draft without looking back. Just write and keep going. I couldn't have gotten the novel to where it is now without adopting and embracing NaNo's philosophy.

I've mentioned elsewhere that, to me, the art of writing is in the revising. Once the words are on the page, that's when work transcends to art. But getting the words onto the page, getting an entire novel down before you revise, that's a difficult but necessary challenge. I want to go back and tinker. The urge is compulsive and so seductive. And I can tell myself--lie to myself--that I'm writing when all I'm doing is snipping and pruning. Endlessly.

Full disclosure: I don't participate in the NaNoWriMo contest, nor do I limit my drafting to November. Given the constraints on my time, a little every day is the only workable model. (Although I can understand why writers hole themselves up in order to get their drafts down.) But in terms of freeing me from the prison of my own process, NaNoWriMo has been an invaluable asset.

It is for the self-described non-writers that I think NaNoWriMo is the true revelation, though. You will never be the same after you let yourself write hour upon hour, day after day, for an entire month. Give it a try.