Hovering over a lake of words

We gave ourselves an assignment: write every day for a week, minimum two minutes each time with an ideal goal of 30 or more. This was in response to our constant wailing, in our weekly chats, about how work and life get in the way of writing.

James will have to report on his own results, but mine showed that, even though I write for work many hours every day, I don’t write for the creative projects I claim to be longing to do. Words are all around me — they are the stuff of how I make my living — but I am not immersed right now in any creative project even though I often feel as though I am on the verge of one. Ironically, instead of using this self-imposed writing week to dive into a creative project, I felt compelled to interrogate myself daily with the question that could be boiled down to this: With all the writing I do, why am I not ‘writing’?

tree branch, Jamaica Pond, August 27 2013, photo by Lydia and editing by Grace

tree branch, Jamaica Pond, August 27 2013, photo by Lydia and editing by Grace

Below the jump I have published an excerpt from each of those seven days. Even though these reflections and rants are not necessarily essay-worthy, I did enjoy seeing how my unpolished, unstudied writing could yield some straightforward insights in unfussy language. Too often I feel my prose is the product of too much crafting. My free writing is free of my cool pose, and I like that in places.

Next assignment? If we are to continue with the daily writing, James and I will put aside the fretting about not writing and, instead, do the writing. My topic this week is anger. My hope is to jump start an essay I started and put aside a couple of years ago.

Excerpts from a week of writing

Day One: Sunday August 11

This week read James Wood’s essay in NYer about adult children of famous author parents who wrote memoirs about being children of famous author parents. He singled out for scorn the memoir of Greg Bellows, the 61 yr old ‘child’ of now dead Saul Bellows. Greg still seems bitter, unresolved. Wood found the book painful and unsatisfying to read.

Wood’s essay was a review but also an argument about how incompatible family life is with the writing life. He described a certain kind of privacy the self needs to make art. If I had the magazine by my side I would try to go to the page and found some choice quotations — it was good. It made me think about my own life, how it is arranged, how I have arranged it. I am all available, all the time. This seems true at work too. It’s not only family life that lays to waste one’s privacy — work does the same: we are always on call for people, whether students or colleagues. We exist to feed others. Go ahead, suck on us.

Wow, very vampirish. I’m not even into vampires. And I don’t think I’ve thought of that metaphor before. I did think, though, when the kids were little, that they were in effect eating me. All of my strength, feeding them, like the marrow in my bones dissipating. For myself, I was both proud and worried.

Why is it so tiring to get caught up in this thought-loop? It is tiring. I chose this life. I have a career. We have money to pay bills and have a nice life. Why then this ever-present consciousness of what is missing, what is not done, what is missed?

Maybe I have no ideas. Maybe I teach because the knowledge exists and the challenge is in figuring out how to communicate it, and not in what to communicate or why. Maybe I have constructed this life because it is the one I am capable of.

B. told us at work about her 72 year old mother, always writing this one novel. But not really. “The fantasy is important to her,” said B.

This may be what I have: a fantasy. A dream. It elevates my sense of self. It is cool even if I am not writing.

Day Two: Monday Aug 12

Weeds grow like children. Today I faced the garden, figuring it’s mid-season and time for a spruce up. A few annuals. Some perennials to replace the dead ones. Some mulch. I wish I had a personal assistant for mulch. I am so tired of carrying those 40 lb. bags from Home Depot (well, to the car from the store, and at home from the car over to where I need it in the yard).

I did make a dent today — the front yard looks a little brighter, like after you get your hair trimmed: the same, but better. But there is so much more I can/should do. Probably a couple of more hours of weeding. Could plant some more coleus — they would look nice through fall. More mulch.

The gardening is never done. And suddenly that seems tiring to me. The returns are diminishing. So what, I have a nice yard. So what, I can plant things. Two weeks of time and weather go by and weeds come back, the grass grows too high, the slugs nibble on green leaves and make some of the annuals look terrible, and I’ll never have the time to make it all beautiful at once. Plus, the neighbors’ yards look like shit and not sure mine is actually an oasis. If you were walking or driving by, it would be like shitty yard shitty yard shitty yard OH THAT ONE LOOKS NICE shitty yard. And so what.

But am I doing this for passers-by, or am I doing this for myself?

I thought I was the gardener. I feel bitter about it. Am I bitter about the doing, or I am bitter about the state of the garden right now?

Stanley Kunitz a gardener. (Dead.) Merwin — and someone made a documentary about his garden in Hawaii. They write and garden.

But I don’t have time for everything. I cannot develop as writer while also trying to develop as a skater and a gardener and whatever the hell else. My god, I even went to yoga today. Time is a finite resource, and I am spending mine. Then there is work and making dinner. How do regular people get writing done?? ever??

I will do the same stuff over and over. I will weed. I will freewrite. I will have ideas and write a few sentences in my notebook. I will wish and wish. I will hope it all stays alive until some day when time and place seem expansive, and my brilliance expands to fill it with the beautiful object I was always meant to write or make.

In the last 5 minutes everyone has gradually come into the living room where I am. They are talking about many things: tomorrow, Winston, sleeping, the car and who gets it.They are laughing. It is both nice that we are together, and it is also distracting. They are now talking about me, something about people getting rides tomorrow. Lydia is in a jovial mood. She says, “Here’s Mom, the woman who is always here.” Now Jimmy is being rather stern. Eli is trying to be the voice of logic and reason. They did not even notice that I was in here concentrating on something. They are speaking rather loudly.

Grace just said, “Mom is trying to do something!” She goes upstairs.

Jimmy is getting up and leaving the room. It’s just me, Lydia, Eli, and Winston. Lydia is talking. Eli is chuckling. Their own needs are so pressing.

Oh, Grace is back. She is giving me a free sample of shampoo she got in the mail.

Day Three: Tuesday August 13

This is the Oh, Shit day. I thought about my writing commitment in the afternoon, didn’t do it, and suddenly remembered it again. It’s late.

Today was also the Drive Around day — drop off Grace, go to work, drive to two lunch meetings back to back, go back to work, pick up Grace, go home, walk dog, pick up Jimmy from train, drive to Legacy Place mall, eat, shop around — spontaneously bought some green pants, can I pull them off? — and drove home. Walked dog again. Walking is good. Driving is so DEPRESSING.

Summer almost over. Must get into MIT frame of mind.

Not excited about the public/extroverted part of teaching. Takes so much activation energy. This is what makes it hard — not the hours of work, but the hours of brightening one’s self up to *be* with others.

Writing for me is either going to be about finding the still place, or keeping writing in the crazy busy place.

Jack Gantos writes everyday at the fucking Atheneum! Who has time for that? To get there, to be there. Jack Gantos. Now that I know this fact, I could stalk him there. Hard to stalk someone in such a hushed, sparsely populated space.

Day Four: Wednesday Aug 14

Unexpectedly I had space today. Got to my car after work, and the battery was depleted. Looks like I left the headlamps on all day (weird, why did I put the lights on?). I called Triple A and while I waited I started reading the book, Women in Agriculture, which I picked up from the library reserves desk today. It’s basically a book of bibliographies. I read about 45 pages before the truck got there. I stood on the sidewalk, in the shade. I leaned against a fence. I wished a little that I owned the book, and that I had a pen to underline and make notes, but maybe it’s better sometime not to be able to *work*. I read in a browsing mode. The book on the butter maker — that I want to read.

The second space was at the knitting/sewing studio, when Lydia and I went for our dress-making class. There was that wonderful, quiet, focused, intense experience of working alongside others at a similar activity. Absorbed. The studio space was an important part of the experience — we could spread out, each with our own table. The place was organized, although not optimized, to get this stuff done. The right tools were on hand. It was inspiring to look around at the fabrics and yarns. It was comforting to hear others quietly working on their knitting or sewing.

The right book.
The right space.
Peaceful company.

These seem like not a lot to ask. Why such luxuries?

Day Five: Thursday Aug 15

All day I dream about writing! By “writing” I mean something creative, because obviously all day I actually am writing, especially this summer: grant proposals, letters, summaries, etc. Tonight I edited a deck of health cards my friend Juhan is doing as a product/intellectual capital for his design firm. I am in a lake full of words constantly.

And yet I do not always call this writing. So there is some longing unfulfilled.

I almost didn’t do this daily writing exercise because I forgot until the very minute I slammed my laptop down, after finishing the editing, and I realized: I didn’t even give two minutes to MY OWN DAMN WRITING.

Maybe that’s it: my OWN. Something I initiate. And something, for that matter, that I own.

Day Six: Friday Aug 16

Note: Today’s entry I present in full. I started with a phrase, free-associated, and kept going.

Sparkling, brittle hope
Sparkling water
Weight of water
Walter
Waiter
Walter the Waiter
Waiting
Patience
Patients
Hospital
Humble
Humility
The humility of dying
The humility of living
Boasting as a defense
Complaining as a boast
Give a toast — seems like a tribute to another person, but it’s often about the self. I’m saying this and I’m so great.

How is the blog *not* like that. I blog and I boast.

Who cares what I write? I could therefore blog or not blog. One must be mindful of audience and heedless of it too.

But why mindful of audience? Well, one must be mindful when making an argument, because you have to imagine the reception of the argument.

What about when making art? Do you have to worry about the reception of the art? Or, you just make it. Reception is *their* concern.

And maybe you just make It. Whether it’s Art is also their concern.

So you make it because you have time, and you do.

Day Seven: Saturday Aug 17

Maybe home is not the best place to write (for me), and night is not the best time.

But home and night are what I’ve got.

Sometimes my feelings about home are like some kind of tincture that will affect anything I write. My head is never clear when I am home with others. It’s also the neighborhood because the library and nearby Starbucks also press on me with *context* when I’m in them.

Where is it clear? Not my office at work; too many people.The library at MIT is good — any of them. The cafe area in the gym — very productive there. Not my parents house, not at all. Again, too much context pressing down. The conference rooms in the Pappalardo Lab are like sanctuaries. My cubicle at Root has been a great place to write.

Finding the place(s) and setting the time — I should do that.

I know I can also write in the morning at home before anyone is up. I’m not thinking of them yet, and the house is silent. I’ve had some luck with Eli’s room when he’s away and when the door is shut.

People wrote in prisons, for god’s sake. This is ridiculous, that I find it so challenging to write in a house. Maybe the good thing about prison though is the no interruptions aspect. Also, you can’t get distracted by thinking of decorating problems or doing laundry.

Falling asleep. So tired. Long day of chores. What would it be like to have a long day of nothing? Could I withstand it?

4 thoughts on “Hovering over a lake of words

  1. “Not excited about the public/extroverted part of teaching. Takes so much activation energy. This is what makes it hard — not the hours of work, but the hours of brightening one’s self up to *be* with others.” Precisely.

  2. Terrible Bob suggests that you take up a musical instrument, because people who are always busy are said to get things done. — Hasn’t worked, for me 🙂 🙂
    New computer, cello should be getting more attention – sigh. You’re writing when you said you would. Now just keep doing it!

    I’m pulling for you!

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