Too Busy to Write?

Life has had me caught up in it of late, a whirlwind of activity — you know about the graduations, the party — and this week, worries about my mom and visits with my wonderful sisters and their families. More is on the way, as it’s birthday month at our house. “I haven’t written in a month,” a friend said at Writing Lab last Wednesday. Another: “I’ve got that beat — I haven’t written in years!” I suspect this is an exaggeration, but I get it: too busy to write; too many other things to do.

No matter how busy I am, I write every day. Even back in the day — when on top of everything I deal with now I was teaching full-time — writing every day kept me grounded. I did not always write anything of substance, but every day I opened my notebook and I wrote. I wrote letters to God. I wrote about my headache or my heartache. I wrote down a tantrum some charming little person had whipped up, or the adorable thing some other little person had said. I wrote about what a terrible mother I was. I wrote teen-tiny encouragements to myself. (You are not a terrible mother; wanting to be a better mother is a great goal; look at you, despite everything, writing!) 

Writing every day is what brought me out of that wilderness, and, as I know from long experience, it will lead me through this wilderness, too.

I am a great re-reader of books, and one book that I reread almost every year is Louise DeSalvo‘s Writing as a Way of Healing. 

Recently I misplaced this book. I saw it in a used bookstore, didn’t buy it (I was sure I’d find my copy soon), had to go back (to two different bookstores) and search for it. Found it, bought it. Later that day my old copy turned up. Interesting, how that works.

I suspect that it’s time to revisit the book. I open it and I find these questions, which lead me…back to my journal.

  • What else can I say?
  • What else am I feeling?
  • What else might have been happening?
  • Why did this happen?
  • Why else did this happen?
  • Is this really how it happened?
  • Is this really what I was feeling?
  • Is this really how they were?
  • Can I say even more here?
  • Would someone who didn’t know me or what I experienced understand this?
  • Is this as clear as I can make it?
  • What [other] connections can I make here?

In my journal from last year — which I’ve been thumbing through because I just know I wrote down a story there — I found this scrap of poetry. Something else that shouted out loud to me.

I had the idea that the world’s so full of pain
it must sometimes make a kind of singing.

Robert Hass, “Faint Music”

All Your Perfect Imperfections

A friend has a new grandson, and she reports that he is “perfection.”

Of course he is perfection–what grandmother worth her salt would think otherwise?

Even so, when she said it, we both laughed. I think we laughed because even though our children are now young adults, we remember all too well when they were babies. The first time I held each of my daughters is a moment burned into my brain. They were perfection, too, just like the new grandbaby.

We all are.

We are lumpy and wrinkled. We are overweight or skin-and-bones. We are blotchy. Our hair gets dry or it gets greasy. If we could buy that dress or own those shoes…if we could get the perfect job or the car or the spouse or the house…then our lives would be perfect.

If you could get a publisher to pay you a big advance for your manuscript, or if you could win a prize, or just see it once on a bestseller list–then your life would be perfect.

But your life would not be perfect. No matter what you do, it will always be perfectly imperfect.

Along the exact same lines, there is no right time to write your book. An investment banker told me, “The best time to invest is yesterday. The second best time is today.” The perfect time to write your book is not after your daughter’s graduation, or wedding, or after you get settled, or when the new baby arrives, or when the new baby isn’t so new.

I keep thinking my manuscript will be perfect if I just work on it a little bit more. But it won’t. Manuscripts are never perfect. They are what they are.

The perfect manuscript is the one I send out. The perfect time to send it is now. Okay, the perfectly imperfect time is now. But it’s now.

As the song says. (And I wish I had tickets to see John Legend in Woodinville on June 4.)


That First Small Step

I recently took my husband and two of my daughters to see Hidden FiguresThe story of these women mathematicians inspired my husband to go out and buy the nonfiction book on which the movie is based. His report is that the movie goes way beyond the more grounded details of the real-life story. But I find myself thinking about how, fictionalized, dramatized, whatever it is that movies do in order to jump from “based on a true story” to the big screen, I was perfectly satisfied. I loved the movie and I found the main character–based on the real life person–of Katherine Johnson to be…well, epic. (And, reading about her on-line to make this post, I’m still blown away by her accomplishments.)

One of the things I have been thinking about is how, whether or not NASA had separate coffee pots for African Americans, let alone separate bathrooms, these inequalities did exist in the 50s and 60s. They were pervasive. What exactly did Johnson do? If she didn’t save the mission in the nick of time,  it strikes me as a miracle that she wound up at NASA at all, that she was able to attend college, that she had mentors along the way who looked at her and saw her, saw her potential rather than the limitations of her gender or her race, given the times she was born into.

Everything the movie wanted to dramatize, to make larger than life, to emphasize as a story, could be traced back–that’s what I found myself thinking–to some small choices chosen by, the small steps taken by, Johnson and the adults in her life when she was a child.

A space mission is not one big thing, and it can’t be reduced to a flashy image of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, nor can it be reduced to a single person’s mathematical calculations. It is made up of many, many small steps, by many people working together.

Raising a child has been a lot like that for me, and writing books is like that, too.

When you pick up a book, you’re looking at a kind of dramatization of extended effort. It’s as much a symbol as it is an object. One day an author sat down to a blank screen or with a new notebook and a favorite pen and began to write. The next day, she wrote a little more. Eventually it had to be rewritten and polished. Beta-readers had to be found and editors and maybe an agent. Someone had to make a decision to publish the book. All of these are fortuitous choices that you, reading Lincoln in the Bardo or Gone Girl or The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, benefit from.

Yes, you can write a book. Just not today, not all at once.

As my mother used to say, “Sooner begun, sooner done.”



Emily and Me

The nerve of titling a poetry reading “Emily and Me!” I can only hope that Emily herself would approve (“And then a Plank in Reason, broke / And I…”).

So tomorrow from 12-1:30, at the Everett Public Library on Hoyt, I’m scheduled to talk about Emily Dickinson and the practice of poetry, plus read some of my own poems. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll drop by. We’ll do some writing, too!