Thursday, November 5, 2015

Are You My Process?

Many people may not realize this, but P.D. Eastman's children's classic Are You My Mother is actually an esoteric guide to writing a short story.

Here is how it works.

You are sitting around waiting for your next great short-story idea to hatch.

Nothing is happening.

In the story, this where the mother bird flies off to get something for her baby bird to eat.

In your process, this is where you start trolling lists like Clifford Garstang's Pushcart Prize Rankings of Literary Magazines to find out where your short-story masterpiece should be placed.

Or maybe you actually get up and go to the fridge to figure out what to make your family--who are all off doing productive things--for dinner.

Never mind, writer, that you will only get yourself a snack. Never mind that you aren't even hungry. Eating is certainly preferable to sitting there staring at that blinking cursor.

Then just when you've got out the ham and the mayo and the onion and the lettuce and the bread and two kinds of cheese...

Out comes the baby bird.

Your idea is so fragile. Maybe it's just a line or two with a distinctive narrative voice. Or maybe it's a weird-ass situation with a hilarious conflict. It doesn't matter how small it is. Its tiny story heart is beating under its downy chest, and you race back to your desk and write it down.

And writing that first draft is a kind of free fall. It's fun.

Down out of the ethereal realm of pure potential, your story falls into the the world of form.

Down, down, down! It is a long way down.

Good work.

You get up and and go back to the kitchen. You make your ham sandwich. You don't even mind that you have to cut it into three parts to share it with your family when they come home for dinner.

Your confidence carries over to the next day. You get up early and meditate.

When it's time, you fire up your computer. You pull up your story.

It isn't done, of course, but like some Platonic ideal, you know its perfected final version--its mother, so to speak--is out there waiting to be discovered, and full of optimistic zeal, you set off into the unknown.

Surely the essential heart of the story is right there in your first draft, but no matter how long you look at it, you will not see it. So you begin your rewrite, and as you do, you unknowingly pass by exactly what you're looking for...

...and come up with something that isn't even close.

So you write it again.  

And then you do it again.

You're starting to get weary, but you're nothing if not persistent. You know you have to be. All the inspirational quotes from famous writers (one of which you are not) have told you as much. 

So you try again.

You still don't feel good about it, but you know you've looked at it too long. Maybe you're failing to see its quality, and so you decide to submit it to The Paris Review.  

The Paris Review writes back.

"How could I be your mother?  I am The Paris Review."

You take stock. You've written four drafts, and your baby bird isn't any closer to home. In fact, if anything you seem to be getting further and further away. Was there anything to your inspiration to begin with?

There was. You know there was.

You will finish your story. You will. You WILL!

Now you do not walk through the next draft.  You run. You change your story's setting to a zombie apocalypse in 1932 Berlin, which is somehow also in the future because it is a parallel universe.

You write it again.

And again

You know you are in danger of going off the rails, but you don't know what else to do, and you've put so much into it already. Maybe if you just keep with it you will figure it out, and that's when you see it.

This has got to be it.  

Look at it. Look at how complicated it is, how sophisticated. Look how many moving parts. There are magazines out there that publish 80-page short stories, aren't there? It doesn't matter because this is definitely it. Look at it!

Never mind how it speaks to you.

Never mind how it makes you feel!

Look at its bright colors and the cool teeth on it! Look at all the pulleys and gears! The smoke and the awesome tread! This story has it all, and determinedly, you and your delicate story go up, up, up to new and dangerous heights.

But now what's happening? The story is driving you, shaking you, running amok. It's completely kicking your ass. You try to fight it, but it is totally unmanageable. You ask yourself:

"Where is this story taking me? Why didn't I just start a novel?"

And then everything grinds to a halt.

Your story is a mess.

You feel like this.

But you are not famous.

You cry out. 

"What the #@%! am I doing?  What made me think I could write anything worthwhile?"

You want to go home. You want your mother.

And defeated, you close your document. You shut off your computer and turn off your light.

There is no way in hell you could possibly write this story again. You've given up. You've given up not only with your head; you've given up with your heart.

The next morning as you lie in bed, mocking faces appear in the random patterns of your ceiling tile. You do not shower. Even if you cared enough to shave, you could not be trusted with a razor.

Downstairs, you mumble your "Good Mornings," and as you pack the lunches, sighs well up from your chest. After everyone leaves, you sit in a chair looking out your back window. The sunlight on the leaves and grass is positively radiant.

Maybe, you think, it's not too late to become a carpenter, just like Jesus.  

And then for some reason, maybe because you want to run off to Africa, you remember that quote from Isak Dinesen, the one that says: "I write a little every day, without hope, without despair."

And you think, what a dumb quote. But you get up anyway and walk to your desk. You sit down and turn on your computer. You open a new document, and something happens.

Calmly and evenly the story starts to pour out onto the page, the words stacking themselves like stones, and a crystalline certainty circulates through your being as your tale takes shape. It's not showy or complicated or abstruse, and it doesn't even feel particularly "literary," but you make it to the end...

...and it still sucks.

But you, writer, have made it home, because you finally remember that this is your process, and yes, it is frustrating and isolating and the tangible rewards of money and prestige are so meager, but you do it because it is the only thing you've found that engages every part of your being, because it gives you a chance to conjure up something even better than the best thing you have inside of you, and sooner or later, after rewrites and feedback from trusted readers and tons of rejection, someone will like your story and publish it, or maybe not. Maybe before that happens you will let it fall by the wayside to be dealt with in some distant future project, perhaps even in some future life.

So there you have it. It's not pretty. It's not neat. It's not romantic, or certain, or even particularly pleasurable to do most of the time. But if you keep with it, you will, over time, begin to feel how fortunate you are to be able to engage the material of your life in this manner, and you will continue to get better and better at loving it, because it is your process, and it, writer, is your mother.

Thanks for stopping by.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Nuances of Tic-Tac-Toe

This is how it began.  Three enormous boxes.  

Four million pieces of wood.

We set out with belief in our hearts.  

We did not possess great skill.  But we were unified in our purpose and determined to reach our goal.

Along the way, some of us got distracted.

The manual said it would take a minimum of six hours.

Bob Villa leading the entire legion of professionals from the DIY Network could not have finished in six hours.

We quickly realized it would take more than a day, and discouraged, we had to take a step back.   

Some of us needed a hug.


But the following weekend, we returned to our task.

Again, we did not finish.  

We took time out for family.

We completed great works of art.

And then one day, the slide went up.  A few days later, the swings followed.

Then in a flurry, the telescope went up, the flags appeared, the rock wall was assembled, and tic-tac-toe was screwed into our ship's cedar hull.

Not everyone grasped the nuances of tic-tac-toe.

But it didn't matter, because we had started with a vision, and though we encountered improperly pre-drilled holes, various design flaws, and snapped carriage bolts of irregular sizes, we brought our dream to fruition.

So as you start this week after the long three-day weekend in which we celebrated the intrepid voyage of the explorer Christopher Columbus, I hope you will feel emboldened to set off once more on your own various journeys, trusting that with faith and determination, you will see your project--whether it be the Great American Short Story or becoming a master of tic-tac-toe--through to completion.

And please, as you encounter the limits of your abilities and patience, try to remember that the ups and downs are part of it and that we must learn to enjoy the ride.  Because if we are always worried about reaching some destination or trying to stay in a state of safety or comfort, the present moment will constantly elude us, and we will fail to recognize its eternal face.  We will fail to feel its flow and see its simple, direct beauty.

Don't believe me?  Just ask Cubs manager, Joe Maddon.
"I'm always about fans worrying; go ahead and worry as much as you'd like. From our perspective, we have to just go out and play the game like we always do. I'm here to tell you, man, I just can't live that way. The line I've used is, I don't vibrate at that frequency... The process is fearless. If you want to always live your life just based on the outcome, you're going to be fearful a lot. And when you're doing that, you're really not living in a particular moment. 
If you take care of the seconds, the minutes, the hours in a day take care of themselves. So for our fans back home, please go ahead and be worried. That’s OK. But understand that from our perspective in the clubhouse, we're more worried about the process than the outcome.”
Thanks to my brother-in-law for sharing that quote from the Chicago Tribune with me, and thanks to you, brothers and sisters, for stopping by.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Rapping with the Old Courage Teacher

One of the reasons blog platforms make it so easy to publish a new post is that the posts are supposed to be somewhat disposable.  This is has not been easy for me to master.  Apparently I have been thoroughly indoctrinated by the old-school approach where one must pass through the juggernaut of supposedly impersonal taste makers who apply objective standards in order to determine which content should be shared with the public.  If I didn't feel this way I'd be like these crazy kids who just write it down and put it up there.  Walt Whitman help me.  Is it too late to learn?

It can't be too late to learn, but still, I want to say that there must be some concern for quality.  What is the point of flinging up every few lines I write if they aren't going to make a solid connection with somebody, anybody, at least one person who might come across them?  Then again, maybe it's okay to put out something unpolished as long as it contains one bright gem.  I dunno.  I suppose the fact that I'm at least working for the moment in this blog window as opposed to in a Word document signifies my desire to find a new way out there.  Maybe I won't publish this today, but if I do it again tomorrow and the next day and then maybe one day I take a chance and click the orange button up above which will make it available to all of creation.  Walt Whitman, are you with me?

G is sick today.  Her coughing kept her up for a good portion of the night, and we were up with her as well.  For me it was the proverbial straw after a hectic beginning to the week, and I didn't wake up in time this morning to do my meditation or Yoga asana practice.  Now she is home from school with Yiayia after hanging with me all morning.  I feel very out of sorts.  Even the table I'm working on at the coffee shop is slanted.  It reminds me of the commercials where people roam the earth tilting to one side because they didn't have their V-8.

No doubt I'd rather be home working on my big screen with my height-adjustable desk and my incense and the light coming through the window just so, but there is no way to keep an almost-three-year-old out of the studio, especially if she knows you are easily suckered into hanging out when you are supposed to be writing, and hey, how lucky I am to be able to leave my sick child in the hands of her grandmother and slip away for a few hours to enjoy a decent espresso and dive down the rabbit hole of the story I've been working on?  I have everything I need here in my little travel writing kit.  My laptop screen lights up nice and bright and my earplug/headphone combo block out everything but the giant Mazzer grinding up coffee beans each time someone steps up to the counter.  It's also nice for a change to see people coming and going, to look up every once in awhile and see others going about their days, taking care of their business, trying to do their best as they worry about their sick kids, their jobs, their health, their goals, the responsibilities they feel they've been neglecting, and the things they need to hurry up and do as we all sail along into the future.   We're all in this together people!  I'm feeling it.  Let's each high five the next person we see.

Now showing at the Art Institute.  Om Shanti.
Thanks for stopping by.