“Under every deep a lower deep opens.” –Emerson
Our habitual stories usually protect us from the mystery of our lives. –Thomas Moore
This has been a hard week of writing for me. I find that I keep telling the same story over and over. The characters don’t change; I don’t change; the same people or forces or traits are still to blame. In short, I see that I am stuck. I seem to be moving (the pen is moving), but I am in a rut. I pick up a book at random and open it up. It’s a book my sister gave me, one I have resisted reading. Since I am resisting writing, I decide to look around it in. To my surprise, I find this passage:
“Whenever a story puts an end to reflection and further story-telling, that story is now serving as a defense. The whole point of a good story is to give birth to other stories and to deeper reflection. . . .The story within and beneath the familiar story is almost always full of insight and new possibility. It may take courage to go another level down, to abandon clarity, however illusory, for confusion and puzzlement. Our habitual stories usually protect us from the mystery of our lives. But there is always the opportunity to take our storytelling deeper, always the chance to find the intelligence and comfort we have been seeking at a level far beneath the basement of our expectations.” —Thomas Moore, Original Self.
Maybe I am stuck because I long ago decided who all these people in my story are (or were). What if I decided I didn’t know them so well? What else would I need to imagine about them? Most of what I do know about the inner life, the character of my characters is imagined— even if these “characters” are the real people in my memoir rather than the ones I create for fiction.
Stories work because someone does not get what he or she wants. What motivates the people I’m trying to write about? What does each one want most? What keeps him/her from getting it?
“Just tell me what happened,” I say to writers in workshop. Go back to that physical space, that moment in time you want to create and TELL ME A STORY. Who said what? What did she really want? How can I tell? Where was he standing when I saw something I’d never noticed about him?
The mystery of our lives — and of our characters lives — lies embedded in the ordinary details of the story. I have a page from an old Zen calendar tucked into the blotter on my desk: “The mystery of life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” Recreate the reality of your experience.
And, oh yes, let yourself fail. I have to remember that I am going to be stuck, that in fact there may be a good reason for me to be stuck. Do I expect the mysterious not to push me away? Do I believe that I can look directly at the light waiting in those bushes around the old house where I came into myself? the ones that burn in memory? There is a reason that I resist writing.
If I can say, “Oh, I see that I am really not wanting to write,” then I have brought that resistance out of the shadows. I am free to say, “Well, so what?” Most of the time I do resist writing. And when I do write, I am dissatisfied with what I have written.
Writing is about letting ourselves NOT do it right – It is about not doing the “assignment,” about failing to produce what we thought we were “supposed to” be doing. It’s okay to write badly, to write the same thing over and over. It’s also okay to start again to tell the story, especially if that means I abandon clarity in the trust that there are uncomfortable places to traverse before I reach the deeper work calling me to the page.
You have to hold your mouth right. It’s what my dad said when we fished. The fish won’t bite unless you do. And if one of us didn’t catch any, “Guess you weren’t holding your mouth right.” No one ever said what “right” meant, and of course we didn’t ask. It was another adult thing that we were supposed to intuit or figure out. Holding your mouth right means closed, as in No Talking. That much was clear.
I experimented with pursing my lips, the way fish lips looked to me, then held my mouth at a slant, one side lower than the other, like a fish’s grimace when you dragged it out of the water. I couldn’t tell that either one helped any, but getting still enough tot try these out, I noticed things. Movements at the surface of the pond and where the deeper water seemed to start. Half-submerged logs and branches we called “stick-up’s” near Dad’s red and white bobber. I slid my line closer to his.
Focused on how I held my mouth, I was too busy to pull my line out every minute or two to see if I had caught anything. All of which made catching a fish more likely. Working out the puzzle of how to hold my mouth, I forgot to be anxious.
It occurs to me that I can apply the same strategy to writing — especially in this time when the words are slow to bite. If I hold my mouth just right, I might notice where the water shifts hues and dip my a line into a deeper spot, attend to that edge where shallow mets deep. There’s often food for thought there. And perhaps I’ll look more closely at what’s pushing through the surface — “stick-up’s” and menacing logs I’ve avoided approaching in words.
How does a writer hold her mouth? closed? pursed? askew? Does she bite the tip of her tongue, lick her lips? All of the above — and more. The writer mostly allows her mouth to rest at its ease as she listens to street sounds, to the person across from her or the one behind her in line, to the wind between branches or buildings, to a remembered voice still alive in her somewhere. And especially to children — or anyone — speaking in language fresh and mysterious as words are to her when they first start to bite, when the tug of their life at the end of her line is almost more of delight and deep joy than she can land.
Engaged this trail of thoughts, I don’t put the pen down every five minutes, convinced I can’t write anything that matters. Trying to figure out how a writer holds her mouth takes my mind off the need to produce a first draft worthy of the effort, as if all first drafts aren’t meant to be returned to the water to grow a while.
On the bank of that pond I once pulled up a sleek bass. Iridescent as it came free of green water, the fish bowed its length to a furious arc, stippled and streaked blue-gray-jade, fierce as fire. I pulled the bass close, lifted it from the hook with a light hand. I slipped it back into the bright patch of sky caught in the pond and took myself home in the dusk.
Author’s note: Writing this post made me go looking for William Stafford’s essay, “A Way of Writing” (from Writing the Australian Crawl.) I remembered that Stafford compared his daily writing ritual to fishing. I’m glad I sought out the essay, which I had not read for years. It richly repaid my search. You can read it online here http://ualr.edu/rmburns/RB/staffort.html and more about Stafford and his work here http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/william-e-stafford
I’ve written about fishing before. Larkspur Press www.larkspurpress.com/ published one of my fishing poems, “Fishing with my Father in the Middle Field Pond,” as a broadside. Carolyn Whitesel did the gorgeous illustration.
The Easy Square
Sudoku stymied me. I did not want to work the daily puzzle because I failed, and I did want to work the daily puzzle because I failed. It was a lot the way I felt about writing when I started out. With Sudoku it wasn’t long before my urgency to make the puzzle work overcame my discomfort with failure and I bought a book of puzzles with a section of strategies for filling in those nine by nine squares. For a while I worked puzzles with a single-minded focus. I x-ed out the complete failures and tried another one until I began to get it right more of the time than not.
That was seven years ago. The daily Sudoku puzzle is a ritual for me now. Something I look forward to. I still fail, but I know that that failure has more to do with being tired or impatient or agitated than it does with the solvability of the puzzle itself. One evening when I was particularly frustrated with what should have been an easy puzzle, I heard my inner critic/coach say, “Calm down. Do the squares you can do. Don’t worry about the rest.”
Simple, right? Obvious. But in my desire to finish the puzzle I had been stopped by all the squares I had not and could not fill in. I went back over the grid and found one square I could fill. Then another. Absorbed in doing what I could, I was surprised when, in a little while, the entire grid was filled. I had completed the puzzle without realizing it.
I’ve been working on a novel for quite a while now. Writing it in between writing poems and essays and teaching classes and being a mother/sister/wife/grandmother. When I heard that inner voice say, “Do the squares you can do,” I was stymied in the midst of revising the novel. Blocked by the sheer mass of pages and the “undoneness” of the whole. Were there easy squares I could fill in? And couldn’t I use this same tactic to complete the sequence of poems I had struggled with for a while?
I began to look for the easy squares, not only in my poems and the novel, but also as I dealt with an unusual string of family crises. If I could calm myself down and do what I could do rather than focus on what I could not, knots began to unravel.
Revising a poem, I could drop that line that said too much, end the poem sooner — an easy square to fill. Working on the novel, I let go of the opening pages and went straight to what felt good and easy to me, started there and let the “easy square” feeling take me to what needed to come next. When someone called with a problem I could not solve, I thought, “Where’s the easy square here?”
I still fail a lot of the time — the poem doesn’t work, the novel revision is ongoing — but more often, finding what I can do loosens what had felt impenetrable. Looking for the easy square makes me smile.
Even if I don’t succeed every time, I’ve discovered a way of working that often leaves me gratified and surprised. I look up and see that the final square is filled. The poem is ready to submit again. My sister’s voice sounds lighter on the phone. The novel is finding its way.