Saturday, April 18, 2015

So Many Stones: On The Difficulty Of Writing


Tell me if you can guess the location in the picture above. It might come as a surprise that it's Spain, that country of Barcelona nightlife and notorious bullfights, of olive groves, vineyards, and Mediterranean beaches. When most people think of Spain, they probably don't imagine a landscape like the one in this picture: a vast field of stones, basically. But Spain this is--a central high-plains region of Spain called the Meseta. Not all of the Meseta is this stony, but much of it is this shadeless. This picture was taken on a day in October in 2011, while I was walking the Camino de Santiago.

I decided to put up a post featuring this photo because the scene it depicts is a good metaphor for how I've been feeling lately about my writing efforts and life efforts in general. If you've been following my blog the past few months or so, you've probably noticed a lot of posts about rejection and frustration. Even if the posts aren't specifically about those topics, I'm sure the sense of each is obvious in a lot of them.

In the last year or so, I've been writing a lot--much more than I was able to for a long time. That's a good thing since for many years I had something of a block about writing, as well as a bad procrastination habit. I would plan to write, want to write, even sometimes actually sit down to write, and it would feel like trying to give birth to a full-grown giraffe. The words wouldn't come without a big fight, and when they did come they didn't meld together in a way that made much sense to me, to the story I was trying to tell or even the kind of writer I was trying to be. (As an aside, one specific problem I noticed in my writing at this time was its academic or encyclopedic tone. I worked for years at an encyclopedia company, copy editing the articles all day, and it wasn't long before the dry, informative style of writing that makes perfect sense for encyclopedia entries was infecting my own personal, creative writing. I still have to watch out for it, all these years later.) That was when I did write at all. Most of the time I found 1,000 ways to avoid writing altogether--or put it off 'til the next day or later in the day or after dinner or after Cold Case or before work in the morning and so on. But somehow things changed, and in recent years I began to find it easier to write. I think trying other creative endeavors like acting helped to unblock me, as did creating this blog and deciding I would just start out easy by describing some of the travel experiences I'd enjoyed. I still procrastinate, and I still feel blocked at times, but not nearly as much as, say, 10 years ago.

Another change is that I've begun submitting my stuff, something I rarely did before. I think that's also a good thing, but it's hard to gauge, as I get rejected so much. I also get very little feedback in my rejections--and I get very little feedback in general, on this blog or on the few things I have successfully published. Am I sending my work out prematurely? Am I still not ready (i.e., not good enough) to be submitting my stuff at all? Will I ever be ready? If not, then should I just give up writing altogether, even for myself alone?

The truth is I've also been struggling with rejection outside of writing. Some readers may know I tried starting a business a few years back. That failed--I made no profit and went into debt--and I had to close the door on that less than two years ago. Since that decision I've kind of been flailing to regain some footing careerwise--applying for lots of jobs, getting the rare interview, not getting hired, or not getting any response. I've been working during this time at a local store in the suburb I grew up in, a place I had worked at over 20 years ago, before getting any degrees or education and having much job or life experience. I was grateful to be taken back at this local job, but the pay was nothing I could live on and I began to feel trapped in a past I thought I'd outgrown or escaped years ago. And there have been other issues to deal with--coming to terms with some traumatic experiences in Chicago and Ireland from years ago and trying to close the door on all that, on certain people and places, finally. It's all been a very transitional time, and while I know all the transition is necessary, I've long been eager to finally get to the next stage, a stable stage, where I can both settle in and move on without wasting so much energy rehashing the past or trying to recover from the past.

So what has all of this to do with this picture above?

I've been looking at this picture lately and thinking about why it's meaningful to me right now. For one, I think it's because it was taken on a very important journey I took a few years ago, the Camino de Santiago, a journey that was all about sorting out my feelings and habits of the past and present and reconciling myself to those feelings and habits. The Camino for me was a philosophical journey, more than a religious or spiritual one--though there were definitely spiritual/religious reasons for me embarking on it. I learned a lot about pacing on the Camino--about respecting everyone's individual pace in life, including my own, and not worrying or concerning myself with whether I'm going too slow or too fast, with whether I take too many rest breaks or veer off the path or backtrack or stop or  even get completely lost at times, and with whether any or everyone else goes faster or straighter than me on the Camino or in life. I learned a lot about respecting my personal life pace and respecting the boundaries of my own pace--meaning, I try not to allow others to lecture me anymore or feel bad about my life decisions and how my life does or does not meet up with society's or any particular busybody's expectations. I learned lots more on the Camino, and I had a lot of fun and experienced a lot of challenges (physical and mental) and walked through some really difficult and beautiful terrain and difficult and lonely days and difficult, beautiful, and lonely memories and thoughts.

One of the loneliest times I had on the Camino was walking the Meseta. For those walking the Camino from the south of France (from St. Jean Pied de Port or thereabouts) or just over the border in Spain (from Roncesvalles or San Sebastian or Pamplona), the Meseta is the middle part of their journey, the long stretch in between the cities of Burgos and Leon. Quite a few pilgrims decide to just skip over it and take a bus or taxi between Burgos and Leon--to save time or because they feel the landscape of the Meseta is not interesting enough or too barren to reckon with. They're right--it is pretty barren compared to other terrains of the Camino. It's not lushly green or mountainous or forested, and of course it's far from Spain's famous beaches and more exotic hotspots. There are no cities between Burgos and Leon--you're not gonna encounter any sizzling nightlife (though why you'd really want to on the Camino is beyond me, considering how the Camino makes you look and smell after just a few days of walking and how it fatigues you and demands early bedtimes and early risings the whole way). For Americans, walking the Meseta is probably comparable to walking the pre-pioneer Midwest or through desert country or across west Texas. It's actually a breathtaking and rewarding landscape to walk across, but the rewards are stark and hard-won, just like the scenery and the harvests of the terrain you're walking through.

Walking the Meseta, I started to have doubts about whether I should even finish the Camino, whether I should keep walking all the way to Santiago. I was having lots of discomfort and pain from blisters all over my feet, which were slowing me down day by day. I was walking on and off with another American woman whose personality I sometimes found hard to read. Then I was walking on my own most of the time, and some days I barely encountered another pilgrim or a local for long stretches of the way. I worried it would be this lonely all the way to the end. I wasn't sure I was enjoying myself very much. I was more distracted than expected by some news I'd gotten about an old flame, just before starting the Camino, while I was visiting old acquaintances in Ireland. At times, I think I felt much like I did when I was trying to write years before, in the days I was living by myself with my cats in an apartment in Chicago and I had very little social life, few people I felt I could really trust to talk about the past, while spending my work life hunched over manuscripts on subatomic particles and thermodynamics and the history of the Ukraine (it's very depressing, trust me) or slave trade (not just depressing but horrifying, I hope it goes without saying).

I don't know what this is adding up to for you, the reader, but maybe you'll understand more when I say that when I look at the picture above, I don't just see a natural landscape, I see a landscape of life. I see a field filled with countless small stones--a field that wouldn't be much fun to walk over, no matter the weather. I see stones that could be used as tools but, as they appear in this picture, don't seem to serve much purpose, don't seem fit for transforming into much else, like a house or a hut or a wall--not without a huge amount of time, effort, patience, and trial and error. I see nothing growing, and no evidence of something growable in other times of the year. I see a thousand fits and starts, failures, plans that don't work out, friendships that end badly, form rejections, half-finished poems, stilted stories, periods of self-doubt and isolation. I see words too, more words than I know the meaning of or know how to put together on a page in a way that appeals to me and tells the truth and serves the purpose of truth and poetry or storytelling.

I also see beauty, and I see potential and hope and the future. It was windy the day this picture was taken, though not too cold. The sky changed a great deal throughout my walking for the day--from my memories and from all the pictures I took on that single day, I can see it varied from gray and dim to rainy to cloudy and sunny. At this moment, in the afternoon of October 9th, 2011, the sky above the Meseta between Burgos and Hornillos was blue with long swaths of clouds that matched the stretch of the horizon. The clouds to me look like writing, like lines of words going down a blue page, except at the top of the "page" where the clouds are more formless, blot-like--doodles, scribbles, notes, cartoon bubbles, who knows? I know I may be the only who sees this. I also know I probably didn't see this at all when I was actually there on the scene, taking this picture. All I saw were the rocks. All I saw was the beautiful desolation, the emptiness and loneliness and the challenge. I also saw a scene that I could show to everyone back home after I finished the Camino and say, See how hard it was at times? See what it was like? I saw my own future pride, in having walked all over a landscape like this and survived. Because even then, despite the self-doubt I was feeling, I knew the chances were I would get through this, that I would keep going and come away with a story to tell.

Right now I have a few poems sent out waiting for acceptance or rejection. And a story too, that's been rejected from 2 places so far and is still in limbo at another place. I have a bunch of poems that I've been putting up on this blog lately--most of which I think are really bad, and I feel a lot of anxiety about that, about how bad they are and whether I should be posting them and whether I should bother writing another poem (or finishing the few I've started) ever again. I have stories up here that have been rejected too. I have other stories in various stages of vision and revision. I have ideas in my head (with a few notes written down) for stories and essays and poems that I wonder if I should even attempt, because I fear maybe they're too personal or too difficult for me to pull off. I'm afraid the effort will just be met with rejection--both from editors and journals and from friends and acquaintances who may think "You shouldn't be writing that. You shouldn't be talking about such things. You shouldn't be feeling such feelings."

I'm not afraid of mining the past for stories and poems. I think that's my business and my decision. I know I don't need anyone's permission to write about my own life. But I am afraid of not being validated, of giving out pieces of myself only to have no one willing to take them, to even hear them, believe them, consider them. I fear hurting others as I write about my past hurts, but I also fear the frustration that only comes from self-censorship, from silencing yourself.

These are vicious cycles to get caught in. The only thin that makes them tolerable is the knowledge that they're also common cycles for writers. Writing requires everyday conquerings of fear and anxiety. No...not everyday. Every hour, every minute, every moment you set aside to write a sentence, a paragraph, a story or poem, an essay, a novel, a life memory or truth. Writing requires recognizing the cycles and trusting that at some point the wheel will turn the way you want it, just as likely as the times it turns the way you don't. It's more likely the turn the way you want it when you keep the wheel going, when you keep trying and keep writing, rather than when you give up and stop or when you let fear or self-doubt or the possible critiques or judgement of others get in the way of your words.

At the moment I don't know if the wheel is turning my way again. I finally got a job, in a museum in Chicago (expect a blog post about the museum soon), and I'm happy and excited about it and tempted to see it as a sign that things are starting to go my way again. I also stumbled across an old Tumblr blog of mine that I had abandoned and completely forgotten about. Ironically I discovered it while creating a new blog of sorts, a Wordpress site that I set up just to feature my published credits. I was doing some Googling to see if my Wordpress site was coming up when the old Tumblr one did instead. It wasn't a serious blog or anything. I started it as a kind of release from this one, a little project where I would just re-post other people's animal pics and art and the occasional joke or article or poem I liked. I only kept it up for a month or so. Looking through it I was surprised that I had written one entry--about writer's block. In that entry, I mention a lot of things that have been plaguing me again--anxiety, fear, procrastination, same old same old. I also looked through the pictures I had shared on the old blog--my own pics and other people's--and at the comments I had written under some of them. Under a few of them I had actually made some pretty wise or poetic comments--that surprised me too. Why didn't I pursue some of those lines a little further back then, use them in a full poem or a story? Why didn't I even remember writing them? I was glad I'd rediscovered them now. When you're struggling with self-doubt, it's a gift to come across evidence from the past that you've not only been here before, but you've made it through before too. It's also a gift to come across the odd line of yours that reads rather well after few years' distance, especially when you probably didn't think much of it back then and were probably underrating yourself and being too hard on yourself then just as you are now.

Which brings me back to this picture at the top of this post, and the questions that come to my mind. Where have I seen this kind of landscape before? Why am I seeing it this way now? I like the picture as much for all the stones as I do for the pretty clouds and blue sky. I think the picture wouldn't be half as interesting, half as striking if it was missing the stony part or if the sky part was cut off. I think you need both to make this a good picture, and I think it's the same in writing and storytelling. The perfectionist in you wants there to be no stones in the way--push 'em all out of the picture, out of your poems and stories, out of your writing and efforts. The coward in you wants you to ignore the stones altogether--pretend they're not there. Write without the stones--focus on the pretty blue sky and the nice things in life and the good times in your life. Leave out the stones. Lie. Hide. Keep it all light, impersonal, sunny. Keep the dark stuff, the stony parts, the real personal--and truthful--stuff to yourself. Cut out the stones. Cut out your heart. Cut out your struggle and effort. Show only half the picture, half the landscape, half the truth, half the story.

Well, the piles of stones are as much a part of the story as the pretty sky. The stones are as much a part of the truth as anything. An important part, as important as the sky and the clouds and the nicer, more scenic parts of the journey, of the Camino and the story. The stones are worth a story in themselves, even without the blue sky above it--and the blue sky is worth its own story. But the two together, in one photo, in one story, on one day, on one road, is the better story, the richer, more honest, more complex, and more interesting one. The stones are my story and every writer's story, and the picture above is my story too--past, present, and I hope, future.

As they say on the Camino, and as I try to say to myself when I need it, including now: Ánimo!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Skin Poem

I've been having second thoughts about the NaPoWriMo challenge. But here's a recent effort anyway.

Green Skin

I grew green skin
when I was 22…

I did it for you.

Now I’m 42
I must confess:

It fit me like a bottleneck and felt like a stamp
that said: Good Person! on my soul.

I miss my old skin. My motley. Not to mention
my ambiguous moral fiber.

I’m think I’m ready
for a shedding

and I’d like you
to look away…or leave
as I slough
off

and re-emerge dappled
disobedient
and
raw.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Baking At Ballymaloe

Debbie Shaw teaching a baking course at Ballymaloe Cookery School, in Co. Cork, Ireland.
This picture was taken in September 2013 at a famous cooking school in the southern tip of Ireland. The school is called Ballymaloe, located in County Cork, and the woman teaching in the photo is named Debbie Shaw. All those goodies you see in the foreground of the picture were made by her during the course of the lesson: soda bread, scones, focaccia, lemon poppyseed cupcakes, and sponge cake with lemon curd and raspberry filling. This course was part of a women's tour I organized for my former tour company, Wayfaring Women Tours. This was actually the penultimate day of the tour, which lasted 9 days and took us from Galway City, around Connemara, to the Burren and the Aran Islands, down to Dingle and through County Kerry, across Cork to Ballymaloe and Blarney. Our time at Ballymaloe also included an overnight stay in the truly beautiful country home (called Ballymaloe House) and dinner at the house. Ballymaloe was one of the definite highlights of the entire tour.

I included a visit to Ballymaloe, both the cooking school and the country home, on the tour not only because I knew it would be a great time, but also because I wanted the guests on the tour to come away from their time in Ireland with a positive view of Irish food, cooking, baking, and eating. Ballymaloe is famous in Ireland (and throughout Europe) for changing the notion of Irish cooking as being bland, boring, uninspired, and unhealthy. What Myrtle Allen, who opened Ballymaloe House in 1963, did down in County Cork over 50 years ago was effectively start a revolution. At Ballymaloe, emphasis was placed on using local ingredients and "growing your own" vegetables and products as well as embracing traditional recipes and country skills (from cheese making to home brewing to baking your own bread). All the members of the tour got a chance after the lesson to make their own scones and cakes in the Ballymaloe kitchen and got recipes to take home with them. Needless to say, we had a great time. That's me showing up one of my magnificences below. ;-) You can read more about our time at Ballymaloe and about the school and house in general, and view more pics, at this old post of mine: The Ballymaloe Revolution. I absolutely recommend a visit to Ballymaloe--the school, the house, the restaurant, even just the gift shops--for anyone visiting Ireland or County Cork. 

How ya like me now?

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Concert Poem

Today's poem. I don't think this is much of an attempt. I thought of not writing one today at all--actually I think of not writing anything at all anymore. Some days you wonder why you bother. Just being honest here.

Concert

Sometimes, not often enough, I hear shimmers
here, where cars bumble around Indian chief
cul-de-sacs, and lawnmowers jet across the yards.
Someone cuddles a radio to a window and sets
a song free. The birds and locusts
probably don’t like it. Their show is shown up.
Sometimes, when summer allows it, the center
of town rumbles with the weight of a train
hounding the night to wake. The night dreams
through the rumpus, shivers only for the skunks
playing tunes with their tails.

There's a train in this poem. So here's a train picture. This was a pic I took several years ago that a writer acquaintance of mine altered for a project he started last year. You can read more about it here and here.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Dream Poem (Featuring Christopher Walken)

Today's NaPoWriMo entry. I didn't use a prompt for this. But I am kinda cheating with this one, since it's one I started writing a couple weeks ago and then left to finish later. With this poem, I was trying to play with odd pauses within the line that might signify someone taking irregular breaths, like the breathing some people do when talking while running or during REM sleeping. But as I was working on it and reading parts of it over in my head, I kept hearing Christopher Walken's voice reading this out loud (which gave me a good laugh). Christopher Walken is known for his strange, distinctive pauses and idiosyncratic choices in word emphasis. He's become so well known for his speaking style that he's probably launched the careers of a hundred comedic impressionists. These days if you're an actor or comic who does impressions and you can't deliver a good Walken impression, then you're nothing. Anyway, here's the poem--originally titled "Dream Breaths" but now subtitled "Christopher Walken Describes His Dream."

Dream Breaths (or Christopher Walken Describes His Dream)

It seemed such a small/ place
I could’ve walked it/ in a day
Not even a day
In the exhale of an/ afternoon.
And he seemed such/ an easygoing man
I could’ve/ talked to him/ all night
Though I didn’t//
He never gave me/ time.
So when the shadows/ they cast/ together
/The small place/ and the/ good man/
First appeared/ on the wall I walked along
I did not recognize/ their original/ casters.
I thought they were/ the shadows
Of a mountain/ or the universe
Or faith and love smudged/ together
They seemed too large/ too dark/ to belong
To such a small place/ and/ such an
Easygoing man.
By the time I/ realized
Who I was/ following/ along the wall
The casters had turned/ to ghosts//
So they couldn’t be seen/ at all.
I followed them
Anyway.
I walked all day/ and
Talked all night/ to the memory
Of that small place/ and/ my good man
Trailing my hand/ along the wall/ and
Holding my breath/ all the way/
It took a break/ in the wall//
A breach/ in the wind/ for the spell
I was under/ to lose its pinch.
In the break I/ met again/ the good man
And the small/ place.
They wore shadows/ that fit them
Like breaths//
One quick and gray//
One deep and// blue.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Aubade: Morning Poem

Here we are again. Today's poem for National Poetry Month is a response to today's prompt from the NaPoWriMo.net website. The prompt was to write an aubade: "These are morning poems, about dawn and daybreak. Many aubades take the form of lovers’ morning farewells, but...today is Monday. So why not try a particularly Mondayish aubade." You'll see below what I came up with. I wrote this morning poem in the afternoon.

Aubade

It was a Wednesday…I’m sorry it wasn’t a Monday.
If it had been
Monday
your mother would have still
been gone
would have not walked in
and not been
the first to waken us
before the dawn or the cow
below your bedroom window
crying for water
or the spider creeping across the covers
under which I hid…

Silly girl. I wasn’t ready
to give up the girl I was
the night before
for the woman or the day
to come.
I was still afraid of spiders
though you’d told me
many times they meant no harm.
I was still afraid of mothers too.

When we parted at your parents’ door
you had to tell me how to go home.
You had to tell me
to go and reassure me.
The night before had gone
much the same.

When I left you I crossed the beach
took a fist
of wet sand
and let it drop
over the bow
of a white upturned boat
I was certain
was still asleep.

Early morning in the south of France, on the Camino de Santiago

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Favorite Holiday Poem

Here is today's attempt at a poem for NaPoWriMo. I was inspired to write this by the fact that today is Easter, and Easter has never been a holiday I enjoyed very much--probably one of my least favorite along with New Year's Eve. I also had some unhappy Halloweens growing up, and one very bad Labor Day. My favorite holiday is Thanksgiving.

My Favorite Holiday (If I Had One)

My favorite holiday (if I had one) would not involve church
or incense burning or flowery altars or flowery dresses
or for that matter dresses of any kind
or dressing up.

Of course you could wear a tux or a cast-off Oscar gown
if you really wanted to (I’d still invite you over)
but if you were ever a girl forced to endure
the wearing of Easter bonnets or Christmas ruffles
or those offensively aforementioned flowery dresses
with stockings that snagged at the ankles
and sagged at the knees
and pinched at the waist
and gaped at the crotch
then as far as I’m concerned you’ve earned yourself
a thousand dressing-up dispensations
good for hunting eggs in your pjs
or valentining in your sweatpants
or caroling in your bathrobe
all over town.

My favorite holiday (if I had one) would involve meals
for certain but only the home-cooked kind
that require too many cooks arguing
in the kitchen.

Of course you could call a caterer or hire a private chef
if you really wanted to (I wouldn’t come though)
but catering would be cheating and besides
you’d miss out on the arguing
which would ruin the meal
and the whole holiday spirit
because arguing over pots of potatoes
or politics or the proper way
to slice the prime rib
brings families together
without fail.

My favorite holiday (if I had one) would not allow catering.
Catering is for bloodless people, people without opinions
without appetites, without family secrets
and family recipes and family feuds
people without forgiveness
which my favorite holiday (which I do have) would involve
and allow and celebrate
above all else.