WRITING

 

When I was maybe three years old, I wanted to write. I didn’t yet know what being a writer meant. I just wanted to take a pen or pencil and say things with it that other people could read.

Magic.

I remember trying to copy the shapes of words and letters off of my father’s can of shaving cream. I remember making wavy squiggles with a pen and asking the lady next door to tell me what they said. “Water, water, water,” was her reply. And yes, I remember scrawling my name, in lurid crayon colors, on all my big sister’s books. (She did not find that particularly profound or cute.)

To me, writing is as powerful as it was for the druids. Despite any New Age or King Arthur legendary stuff about shape changing and crystals, the real magic of the Celtic druids was their ability to write. This gave them the power to do amazing things, such as keep records of someone’s property and put down for posterity the shenanigans of some chieftain, thus ruining his reputation.  The fact that one druid on the east coast of Ireland could make marks that another druid on the west coast of Ireland could read and understand was truly magic. And it still is.

Philosophical treatises, mathematical theorems, wills, census records, stories, letters, poems – everything written down has the power to go through time and space to connect people’s minds.

My first success as a writer came in fourth grade. I wrote the class Christmas poem, which was about a snow fairy. It “borrowed” a lot from Longfellow and “The Night Before Christmas,” as I recall.  By fifth grade I was onto more adult stuff, writing a story about a sleek and beautiful black-haired woman standing on the stone balcony of some mansion, caught between the raging sea below and a handsome man in a tuxedo pouring champagne in the room behind her. Deciding between the two, she threw herself into the sea. Ahhh – what prophecy! But that’s another story for another day.

To have a passion for writing is different from having a passion to make a living as a writer – very different. It’s a good thing I didn’t develop the latter, since I couldn’t make a living on what I earn as a writer. Anyway, I love my paying job as a teacher. And so I’ve been able to shamelessly write what I am compelled to and passionate about. Some of it isn’t good. But I’m still glad that I wrote it.  I always try to learn something from the process of writing, and I do, even if it’s learning what constitutes bad writing.

Mostly what I want to learn is what is noble. That seems like an old-fashioned word now, something with the scent of class and snootiness.  But I use the word “noble” to describe someone who has integrity and tries to act, even live, according to it – no matter what.

Teaching and traveling and hanging with friends, in these things I have to put my actions where my writing is, and I don’t always come through in a noble way. So without these worlds outside of writing, I wouldn’t have much to say and might get fooled by my own bullshit.

Every now and then, I get a crippling sinus headache that not much can be done about other than starting a regiment using items from Walgreen’s larder and lying in bed. These headaches are less frequent now, but when one hits, I’m doomed to about 24 hours of non-action.

During the last bout of pain I listened in the dark of my room to a wonderful reading of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Thanks to my friend Catharine, who lives near Walden Pond, I’ve swum in its waters, stood on the site where Thoreau noted the sounds and sights and thoughts the rest of us could experience through his work long after he died. He wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

In today’s vernacular, “Oh – My – God.”

I wish for all of us to dive fully into what inspires us, whether it be painting or food or children or tennis or singing or whatever, and that we do not do it to make a living, but to live, no matter how exhausted we are from making a living.

Writing is where I live most fully.  And I’m glad I can be a demented old woman and still write, even if it’s back to “Water, water, water.”

 

WHAT I CAN’T WRITE ABOUT

Virginia Woolfe wrote an essay called “The Angel in the House,” explaining that women have to kill the angel voice inside them in order to be powerful writers. Truman Capote didn’t have any problem with that voice. He wrote about anything he felt like writing about with scathing and scalding clarity.

Virginia Woolfe never wrote about what many speculate was childhood sexual abuse. Maybe that restrictive angel, the one who advises women to hide unpleasantness, would not die. At 59, Woolfe killed herself.  Truman Capote died at the same age of liver disease; he had poured gallons of alcohol over any censoring angel inside him, allowing him to release some of his demons before his liver succumbed.

I believe that many writers today, mostly American and mostly women, are pulling punches, letting their most powerful blows be either held back by that old “Be nice” angel or the new “Be numb” Prozac mentality. But one cannot write strong literature without risking being disowned by strangers and loved-ones alike. One cannot write strong literature while wanting to be liked by everyone. The gift a writer gives is some truth that will expand a reader’s mind and heart.  Pretty lies don’t do that.

I hide in historical stories. I put my experience with sexual abuse in the 19th century in New Mexico. I put shameful and painful aspects of my relationships in 6th century Ireland or 19th century Paris. I put my own immoral and dishonest traits in a man taking a train from Boston to New Mexico in the 19th century. I put my years of promiscuity and the trauma of my son’s death in 14th century Ireland.

So I’m much more of a coward than Truman Capote. And I’m certainly not as successful as he was.

What I can’t write honestly about are the people in my life who wield power over me, whose approval I want, and even more futilely, whose unceasing affection I want. I can’t let fly with their stories and my reactions to them. I sort of did that once, in a fictional context in which only the person targeted knew what was going on, and I got a psychic and emotional whipping for it. I couldn’t stand the heat.

What I can’t write about is the suffering I’ve caused to innocent people, even animals, because of my unresolved and out of control rage. I can’t write about the Iago-like evil I’ve felt capable of – how I’ve wanted to ruin lives out of resentment. And that’s another reason I’m reluctant to go after the objects of my obsessions in writing, because I very well may be doing so out of resentment rather than out of a desire to reveal truth.

The catharsis of writing can be so powerful and purging, if one is willing to deal with toxic levels of anger and coldness.

Disdain, contempt, backs turned to me, icy glances and exclusion – those are the elements of my nightmares that keep me huddled in a corner of potential.

I also can’t, or don’t yet have the nerve to, write forthrightly about my spiritual experiences, because I am not yet willing to endure them being ridiculed, or even ignored.

Currently, I’m researching a woman whom I plan to write about, either in non-fiction or in a novel. She is the subject of the song I wrote and that my band The Vagibonds performed on a You Tube video.  I haven’t been able to go beyond the ballad of her experiences on the Titanic, though I spent three weeks in France researching her time as a medical volunteer on the French front during World War I. And the reason for this particular writer’s block is that to really say it, I will have to come out of one of my closets, because half-truths are no gift to readers.

How I came across this woman goes against all the cynical intelligence of a large number of people who matter to me. It has convinced me of what Hamlet said to his dearest friend: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,  than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Vehemently contradicting the philosophies of others and exposing oneself to ridicule and rejection are not easy. Go ask Virginia and Truman; look at the lackluster, easy reading that has become American literature today. Increasingly, my students write about vampires or romantic failures due to a chronic lack of caring. Their vapidity isn’t so much a result of the angel in the house as it is of the cynical adolescent in the house — the one who seems to be running the publishing world.

Yes, I’m bitter. My last two manuscripts haven’t found a publisher. That also adds to an urge to give up, have a drink, pop a pill and hang out with the angels.  More compelling than that, more compelling than fear or even pride – much, much stronger – is the urge to write. But for me, that means I need to keep digging when the hole gets darker but the treasures get richer, no matter who reads or doesn’t read, likes or doesn’t like what I bring to the surface.

Finding What You Weren’t Looking For: Where Research Leads the Writer

     There’s only one column left of Hera’s temple in Crotone, Italy. To get to it, you walk through a park that has a fraction of the olive trees that once grew in the thick forest that covered the area. The forest is gone. The temple is gone, except for this column and other crumbs left behind — the stone foundations of various chambers, serving various spiritual and sexual needs. 

     In December there can be a cold wind on the coast of Southern Italy. You can stand alone, like the column, on this ancient site, uncomfortably bundled, wondering what happened to Hera, what happened to Crotone where Pythagorus and his cult once contemplated the geometry and music of the cosmos. 

     Today Crotone has a speck of charm left and a lot of trash, noise, combustion engines and organized crime. African refugees, brought to this particular promised land by corrupt industries,walk to and from barbed wire bound compounds in silent groups — cheap laborers for some fat gatto.

     I wanted to go back home, to leave this wrecked place and its sad remnants, or at least go back to the Zen Center in Rome, an unexpected refuge in the most Catholic city in the world. I was getting a few details for my novel about Pythagorus’ cult — the shape and size of the little oil lamps the ancient peoples carried, the way the sky and sea looks from Hera’s temple — but it was scant information compared to the piles of trash leaking into the streets and the constant roaring of a thousand cars looking for one parking space. What was the point of dealing with the nine hour tin can experience of the airplane, the frantic and humorless security lines where people threw items into plastic tubs and then rushed to reorganize, anxious about missing a connecting flight? What was the point of spending oodles of money for a walk through a tiny museum and a shivering pilgrimage to one sad column when my publishing prospects had waned since the low sales numbers of my last novel? 

     As a writer of historical novels, I felt that I had to stand where my characters stood. And I did — in more ways than one. I understood, as I could never have understood staying at home with my dog and my imagination, the poignant end of one of history’s noble efforts. The impermanence of ideals, philosophies, utopias and even gods, is hard to take. You want to hang on to a romantic idea of something, anything — ancient Greece, modern Italy, yourself as a writer being inspired by beauty instead of being depressed by trash and by the exploitation of once hopeful African immigrants. 

     This depression followed me back to Rome where I must have been one of the grumpiest adult tourists ever to trek through the maze of the Vatican museum to see the Cistene Chapel. With hundreds of people, I craned my neck to stare up at Michelangelo’s work; the part where God reaches out to Adam was much smaller than I had thought it would be. And everything was so damned ornate and ostentatious, so patriarchal an opposite of that one beautiful remnant of the mother goddess — that single column, hanging on, looking out to a vast blue ocean that, at least on the surface, remained uncluttered, unruined. 

     A fiction writer seeking the truth is in itself a kind of oxymoron, and I felt like a moron. I liked the sanctuary for cats in an archeological site in the Argentine section of Rome better than the Cistene Chapel. Cats were everywhere — on broken columns, strolling along tumbled stone walls. And I loved the shiny Micky Mouse face balloon that had floated up against the ceiling of the entranceway to the Pantheon and that grinned stupidly down on tourists like today’s manifestation of Zeus. 

     Truth moves, erodes, morphs, disintegrates, makes a joke of expectation and certainty. Whatever I write will somehow spin around that one column and have a lot of cats and the face of Micky Mouse looming somewhere. 

     I had no idea that’s what my research would turn up. 

 

 

The Amazing But True Story of What I Would Be Writing About If I Were Writing

 

I haven’t done a lot of writing on this website. And yet I’m very grateful to anyone who takes the time to check it out. One problem I have with a blog is that I prefer to use fiction, narrative, to say what I am compelled to say.

            The books that I’ve published rely on research into real lives that fit my pet themes. These themes always have something to do with integrity, which I define as the quality of actually behaving according to one’s ethics. I’m fascinated with the idea that humans are capable of having integrity, yet often choose not to. We excuse ourselves from making a serious effort to live up to our ideals, even though many ordinary people have shown that courage, honesty, and maintaining a love of life are not super human. They are choices. 

            In my first novel, there’s the woman who sees her Jicarilla Apache friends slaughtered and thus learns what evil is and that she has to reject it. In another story, there’s the woman who has to finally admit that her drinking has caused others to suffer, including the man who was hanged after he helped find her missing children. There’s the man in Careless Love who lusts after women so indiscriminately that he has sex with an axe murderess in her jail cell; but a thirteen year old girl gives him an opportunity to see his own bullshit. There’s the 19th century French doctor who faces up to his own part in a world of hypocrisy and exploitation after knowing a Native American on the verge of being his own people’s great shaman. There’s the 14th century Irish woman who passes through many identities before tragedy teaches her to give them all up and “honor what’s been lost and savor what one has.” And there’s the 6th century Pagan Nun, who cannot put her faith in anything but kindness. All of these characters move through self-deception and dogmas to see what is and to align their actions, as much as they can, with what they believe to be humane and noble.

            I am not as good as the characters I create. And that is one of the reasons I don’t have writer’s block, but writer’s frustration. I don’t have the time I need and want to explore all the amazing examples of ordinary humans who have refused to succumb to their own or anyone else’s cynicism. I am not done teaching myself, through the stories I concoct, about how a person not only maintains, but develops strength and integrity in the midst of brutal and cynical circumstances.

            I have one finished but unpublished manuscript called Bad Molly about a woman who comes through the Irish famine and ends up in the Territory of New Mexico as a laundress with the United States Army in 1860. Molly spoke to me many nights when I’d have preferred sleep, her hands on her hips, saying things like, “So when is that you think you’ll pull your sorry backside out of that bed and start writing this story?” Every fantasy she had, except about owning chickens, got soiled or nixed somehow, and yet she constantly demonstrated practical courage and expected it of others. She, no doubt, is very irritated with me now as I write this blog.

            For example, I should be writing the book I’ve outlined about the daughter of a con artist and cult leader in 6th century BC Greece who inherits the secret that all dogmas are bullshit.

            I should be finishing the play based on the true story of a man whose daughter was shot to death on prom night, and who ended up forgiving the boy who did it, a boy who grew old and sick with colon cancer in prison.

            I should be outlining the story of a woman who survived the sinking of the Titanic to get a degree in bio-chemistry and work as a nurse in a World War I hospital on the French front. 

            This stuff is real. I don’t make it up. Or I don’t make the core of it up. I just stumble upon every day acts of awesome backbone and think that all of us running around talking about human nature as though it were license to lie, cheat and steal need to jump into narratives where people don’t buy that. People do amazingly generous and courageous things, which doesn’t mean that they don’t also pick their noses.

            And that’s what I would continue to try to write about if I were writing.

           

 

 

 

 

Writing While My Ego Eats Ice Cream

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 For over thirty-six years, I’ve dabbled in Zen Buddhism. For over forty-six years, since fourth grade when I wrote a Christmas poem about the Snow Fairy for my class, I’ve been a writer. These paths do not always converge. 

Egolessness is a beautiful thing. Buddha taught that all suffering comes from the ego’s desire to feel pleasure and avoid pain. Writers are rarely, if ever, seen without their egos.  I heard that Jack Kerouac went through a period in which he wrote all day and then burned his work at night. He spent some time dabbling in Buddhism; but at the end of his life he was bloated with alcoholism, living with his mother, and he had sort of returned to his Catholic roots. I think writing and then burning whatever you’ve written might be a good indication that you are experiencing a Zen moment. But then telling people about it would cancel out the egoless aspects of it. 

It’s hard to want people to think you are cool, brilliant, an irreplaceable contributor to the world’s art, and at the same time try to disappear into the great selfless void. When your work is accepted for publication, when people actually show up for a booksigning, it’s easy to say, “I am not attached! Everything is perfect as it is.” But at some point you might find yourself, the Buddhist writer, spending an entire meditation period fretting about how you can get your latest manuscript published.  This, clearly, is not transcending ego. This, clearly, is suffering, albeit on a pretty minor scale. 

 Some might say, “Forget the hippie Buddhist crap and admit that you want it all — you want fame, fortune. And okay, you also want people to stop being mean to each other as a result of reading your profound work.”  But I’ve had one experience after another that told me this kind of indulgence has no good end. It creates a lot of anxiety. It creates doubts and fears; and anyway, all success comes to an end. The party is over, and you have to try to plan a bigger, better party. Yes, there’s momentary pleasure, as there is when one finally says, “What the hell! I’m going to eat the whole pint of ‘Chunky Monkey’ and have a damned good time doing it.” But that last spoonful comes, and then what? How long can you coast on “Wow — that was some fun eating that ice cream”? 

 I cannot deny the wisdom of Buddha. Ego and its limitless fears and desires should not be indulged. And I’d probably be a much more contented person if I had no ambition as a writer. 

 But I do. 

 And yet — there is a time when as a writer I have a little freedom from wanting and fearing — it is,  of course, when I’m writing. 

 Any creative act is best when you forget time. And ambition is, after all, about the future. At my best, I am writing to write, not caring about anything, loving the magical appearance of a word, even a letter. The formation of the words and an insight about the character or the events I’m creating seem to happen simultaneously.

Another way my Buddhist intentions merge with writing is when I make a focused effort to see and listen to a character. It’s a character I’ve made up, but it isn’t “me” — not the “me” in the mirror or the “me” ordering from the L.L. Bean website. It’s often someone in an entirely different century. Yes, it’s part of my imagination, but removed from my day to day identity.

And finally, if I sit down with the intention of connecting to readers, breaking the barriers between my mind and the minds of others, I am making an effort to dispense with the delusion that we are lonely, independent, self-centered beings.  Just as I have been able to see what a long dead writer once imagined, someone else will read what came out of my mind, and it will enter into his or her mind. That’s trippy! And it inspires a certain responsibility to try to make what you put into other people’s minds as good as it can be.