Saturday, July 28, 2012

Tossing and Turning

That sound again. Pages hitting the floor. Pages being thrown away, junked, rejected--by me.

How many hundreds of pages have I thrown away in the past ten years? Many. Is this madness, or have all these rejections had a purpose?

Much of the rejection has come of a restlessness with old ways of doing things. Writing and writing and writing in an effort to see a new way of going about it organic to me. There are lost of new ways out there to copy; but what feels authentic? And a new way that I also like. 

Another cause of the tossing has been the effort to write a novel, a form that doesn't come naturally to me. I wrote one before, which should be a reassurance. But it isn't. I wrote one right when I was supposed to years ago that was to be my second novel, but a similar story--yet completely different--appeared first, so mine went back in the drawer. Then what? Lots of ideas that didn't compel me enough to stick with for the years it takes. A few ideas I probably should have pursued, but I was intimidated by the research involved. Finally, a set of characters I like and plan to stick with for a while, but I made some mistakes in terms of writing long sections that didn't add up to much, and so on. All along I wrote essays, stories, and pages here and there of a memoir. The novel contract though--comes first.

This summer I had a month to really push hard, and I did. A certain number of words a day, no matter what. This has always been a method that works for me, even if everything I write under that self-imposed duress gets tossed. It makes me start to think better, and to see what I really want.

What do I want? To be in the presence of a feeling, and to communicate that feeling. I think I have said that before. I believe all books start in a feeling, a single feeling, and then comes the work of figuring out the characters, the form, the plot, and so on, that hold a place for that feeling--forever, really. A lot of writing and tossing is a way to return to the original feeling--or, if I miss the feeling and consider a character or a story instead, to excavate for the feeling that gave rise to that other apparition.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

One place I really wanted to see out here was where DH Lawrence had stayed
and worked during his time in Taos. I love DH Lawrence. When I first read him, he seemed a kindred spirit, a Druid type who believed in wanting to live in nature and in the possibilities between human beings. Sex, love, connection. Strangeness, above all. Yup.

The DH Lawrence ranch, as the place is now called, is closed to the public, but I was able to go, courtesy of The Taos Writers' Conference, where I am teaching this week. I didn't take pictures of the buildings; they were fine all by themselves, and I'd indeed steal their souls by trying to carry them off with me on my iPhone. But here's a glimpse; they were old homestead buildings, adobe and wood, and looked like the huts at Valley Forge. Utterly simple and without comfort. The wind in the trees blew cool above the hot town, and the scent of the combined saps and needles was a magic potion. He didn't stay here long, but he wrote quite a bit. No distractions. I could picture him sitting on the simple bench under the tree and looking down at his page, out over the valley, and up into the branches. Who needs more? 

Georgia O'Keefe came and sat on the same bench and painted the tree from underneath. 

The Lawrence Tree by Georgia O'Keefe

That's one powerful tree!

The picture above is of his memorial. The story I was told that several women fought over what to do with his ahes. (Ashes spark a lot more arguments than graves, don't they?) His remarried widow Frieda settled the matter by mixing them into cement that was used to make the alter in the memorial on the top of this post. His other ladies wanted to scatter his ashes over the ranch. Oh well. His books are still widely scattered.

Here's the view from the restaurant, El Meze, last night. 

And later, when it got dark.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Taos, New Mexico. 

I have spent a great deal of time alone this summer, and here I am again, alone in a motel room, thinking. Going over my teaching plans for the week, and considering what I'll do with free time. I drove down from Albuquerque yesterday (right in time for the season premiere of Breaking Bad, my favorite TV show ever, though I find it so searing it will be years before I watch it again, unlike The Wire, which I watch frequently, especially the Hamsterdam, Marlo and Snoop eps) through desert and more desert, with views to mesas and mountains. Yet at the Tourist Center and in the motel lobby, the brochures are largely for rafting, fishing, and so on. Odd.

I used to love traveling by myself, but it feels different now. My thoughts are less focused, less geared toward photographs and journal entries. I notice the space around me more, rather than the points of interest; I wish more. 

Sunday, May 27, 2012


Today I have been packing to go away for a month, and sorting through the research material I will need for this part of the book. The documents are mainly personal; photographs, nurses' notebooks, official certificates, obituaries. Later I will have to do archival and library research, but for now I have what I need. More than usual.

Meaning...more than none. This book is the first one for which I'll do a substantial amount of research. In the past, I have always relied upon imagination and memory. I am writing fiction or personal essays, after all; I am the research.

I cannot do so for this book. I have to know what the city I am writing about looked like for all the twentieth century--the changes, buildings torn down and put up. There is a business plot to contend with as well. I remember the event, but even my brief searches into what happened are confusing. I have work to do.

Two events this spring inspired me about the prospect of research. One was a lecture by my colleague, the brilliant James Goodman, about recent research he'd done. The other was a panel at AWP where the brilliant Bonnie Friedman, Marina Budhos, and Kathryn Harrison discussed research for their books. Hearing them actually made me eager. So I am now officially a researcher.

Beginning with reading the nurses' logs. I have never before read them, and they are shocking. I couldn't finish them today; I will have to take them a few pages at a time. There are many aspects of this project that hurt. I hurt when I write. The research will hurt, too.  It is time this story becomes mine, though, and if it hurts, so be it.

Speaking of which, I got a terrible animal bite last night, and have no use of my right thumb. Yes, I did go to the emergency room and got the necessary drugs and treatments. Let me tell you--the opposable thumb is truly a gift from evolution to us.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

An Exercise

If you were only allowed ten memories, what would they be?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Fare Thee Well

Is it worth getting an MFA in writing? Can writing be taught? Here's an answer: these brilliant, kind, generous, strong, honest people. These are MFA students (backed by their great professors.) These are writers. These are people who have spent two years bringing good into the world with their hard work and decent intentions, their wonderful writing, their incredible care for each other. They will go on doing so. I will continue being so so proud of them.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Summer Rules

Summer rules. Or, to put it another way, play it as it lays.

Where I grew up, to shout "summer rules!" conjured drinking at lunch, no shoes, and water, in some form, as often as possible. A pool, an ocean. Sensuality.

Now it means writing time. During the school year it is very difficult to keep a novel in mind; though by not writing a novel, I did manage to write a few other long pieces this year, one just finished. Now it time for the novel. This summer won't be about much else. I have a few responsibilities, and fall classes to prepare, but mainly, I will be in this book. On this blog, I'm going to write about it--not the book itself, but the work of it. I never tire of hearing about other people's processes. I lean forward at readings when some unsophisticated person has the inexperience to ask, how many hours a day do you write, Famous Writer? I want to know, too. How many hours? Why do you stop when you do? Do you laugh at your own sentences? And so on. 

There's nothing really instructive in the answers to these questions, unless the answers are so extreme as to be the lodestar. For example, I recently read Haruki Murakami's What We Talk About When We Talk About Running. Oh, brother. I loved the book--I will say that. I have never read any other thing he wrote--but this one was enough to make me agree he deserves a happy reputation. But--oh, brother. It's about running, serious running, yes; but it is also about writing, and everything you must not do if you want his level of output and focus. You must not have any semblance of a normal life is the basic message. No nothing that doesn't support the writing. Bed before 8. A simple routine, never broken. Of course he's right. There's no balance in this work. No normal life. I sometimes ask my students to name me one recognized genius who cared for his or her kids. Not had kids--cared for kids. This is an angering question, because it asks--how much do you want of it? Not it--I assume you want it. But how much of it? What level of attainment? How massive and comprehensive a view of the times, or a time? What success at penetrating art and nature? How good at getting out of one's own way? 

I certainly wanted more than I have had, but that is my running book. A running from book, as it were. Here I am, with this book to write. First thing: I am trying out Scrivener. I have it set up so I cannot read what I am writing. This is good for me, because it means I can choose when to correct the sentences. If I see them, I mess with them. I hear them differently when I read them, and I try to match my reading sound, as opposed to the voice in my head. They are different. The voice in my head is more visual, whereas my reading voice is more poetic and rhythmic. I need both. But if I go for the rhythmic and poetic over the visual, there isn't enough emotion, and I get lost. Seeing things moves me. Hearing things delights me. I need to be moved first. Move my fingers.

So I chose a font I cannot read, which means I can look without reading, which is good. I don't look at the screen when I'm writing anyway, because I can't touch type. But I need some degree of orientation, so this method is perfect, for today. I wrote about 1000 words last night. I am back to night writing. Summer rules.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


A nice lunch in the city with my pal Stacey, months worth of catch up--and then home to answer emails when...a great scrabbling in the bedroom. Two pets were with me; and my cat Rosie, the one absent from the room at the time, is quite regal--would never scrabble! So I went to look. Well, it was one of those woodland creatures who is about as wide-eyed and adorable as anyone could imagine or want, but WILD. Did not want to be where it was. Wanted to jump out the window, but that would have hurt, at best. I didn't open the window.

Instead...I spent 2 1/2 hours trying to catch it. That is 150 minutes. I did finally with great cunning manage to trap it, but it wrestled free. It was so so so strong. I was super patient for about 145 minutes, talking in a low voice, cooing, singing back to its chirps, and then felt like tres Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs. Get out my house, buddy! NOW! I tried a different tack, and he followed my lead and left. So I am having a glass of wine as I clean up all the scat all over everything. My bedroom looks as though I was burgled, and murdered, too. But I am alive, and so is the creature.

Why is it for the last 25 years 90% of my life has been about cleaning up excrement? Is that right? Was it meant to be this way, or have I not been planning well enough?

The groundhog had strength you wouldn't believe. I think it could have killed me, fo sho. I routinely get chipmunk bites while saving them from my pets; the teeth go clear through my fingers. Ho hum. But this guy could have done a lot more damage.

How did he get in the bedroom? I don't have a screen door. Why don't I have a screen door? Because my house is too old to hold one up. Why is my house so old? Because I had no idea what I was doing, and bought for charm. But why did he come in?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


The Marlon Brando version of Mutiny on The Bounty came out in 1962. It was a three hour movie with an intermission in the middle, a long dramatic telling of the famous story of the mutiny aboard the HMS Bounty caused by the sadistic cruelty of Captain Bligh (played in this film by Trevor Howard.) The film was well along in a line of others made on this topic. The historical event has had a perennial allure; the dramatic mutiny at sea, Captain's Bligh's success at returning to England, and the subsequent settling of Pitcairn Island by the mutineers who created their own tropical paradise. 

I was a small girl when this film opened. It comes with a painful memory of my separated parents both buying tickets to take my brother and me to see it--one night apart. I swore my brother not to tell my father, thinking we'd just sit through it twice, but the truth managed to slip out. We went, but when it became clear we'd already seen it, we left at Intermission. I was completely heartbroken, afraid my father was disappointed. I don't know how he felt about it, really. In any case, the movie is enmeshed with my memory of him, and has a power over me like no other film. My father looked very much like Marlon Brando, and when I sat next to him in the theater, I kept looking back and forth between the two. As a result, I wrote a series of poems at a later date of being a girl disguised as a cabin boy on the voyage, and living on the island.

The islands--the glancing version of them portrayed in the film had the most indelible effect. I have never been to Polynesia, but part of me lives there at all times. I once told my grandfather I wanted to move there and he said "People who live in hot climates never amount to anything." I guess this affected me, too, because here I am in a cold spring, trying to amount to something. I still want to go there, but probably never will.

I know the film by heart, every line. I have watched it twice in the last two days as I went through all the papers piled up in my office. It is a wonderful piece of writing, apparently accomplished by six people. The mutiny is thrilling; Fletcher Christian, as a gentleman, simply can't take it anymore! Bligh, in his latest bit of horror, has decided that if the men want a sip of water, they must climb up to the yardarm, fetch a ladle, bring it down and drink one, only one, ladle full, and then carry it back up. A seaman is dying from drinking sea water. Fletcher decides to give him a sip of fresh water.
Bligh: "You'll give no one water without my permission. Take that ladle below."
Fletcher: "Yes, Sir." But he gives the water to the delirious seaman anyway.
Bligh kicks it out of his hand and Fletcher backhands Bligh onto the deck!
Fletcher: "You bloody bastard! You'll not put your foot on me again."
Bligh laughs. "Thank you. Thank you. I've been puzzling for a means to take the strut out of you, you posturing snob...." Bligh says Fletcher will be confined until a court martial can be convened in Jamaica.
Flecther grabs a sword from one of the men and announces, "Ship's company, I'm taking command of this ship!"
Bligh countermands him. Fletcher stabs Bligh through the arm! Yikes!
The mutiny proceeds. Lots of fisticuffs. The mutineers arm themselves. Bligh and Fletcher are staring at each other like big cats.
Bligh says to Mr. Brown, the botanist: "You, too, Brown? You join these swine?"
Brown: "A man like yourself Sir leaves me no choice."
The men want to kill Bligh, but Fletcher won't let them. "There will be no more killing aboard this ship and that includes Captain Bligh."
Bligh: "If that's an attempt to earn clemency I spit on it!"
Fletcher: "You remarkable pig. You can thank whatever pig god you pray to that you haven't quite turned me into a murderer."
The captain's followers are put in the long boat.
Fletcher: "As you know Tafoa is due west forty leagues. You have your compass, and this book is sufficient for its purpose. The sextant is my own so you know it to be a good one. Now Mr. William Bligh..."
Bligh: "Quite polite and formal of you. Playing the gentleman again, you bloody traitor?"
A bit more action among the seamen as everyone settles into their respective camps.
Here are the final parting words between Bligh and Fletcher.
Bligh (to the mutineers): "Has your murderous friend told you what to expect, or is he going to keep you in the dark? Now hear the truth. The King's navy will not rest until every mutineer is captured and executed. Wherever you go, wherever you hide, a thousand ships will search you out."
Fletcher: "Will you step into the boat, or will you be thrown in, Mr. Bligh?"
Bligh: "I'm not leaving you, Mr. Christian. Not ever. Got to the dirtiest little corner in the world and I'll be there right behind you with a rope in my hands."
Fletcher seems as if he is going to flog Bligh with the cat 'o nine tails, but he decides against it, and drapes it over Bligh's shoulder instead. "Take your flag with you." (Meaning the whip. Snap!)
Bligh pulls it off and wraps it up, and tosses it onto the deck. "I don't need a flag, Mr. Christian. Unlike you, I still have a country. What a big price to pay for a little show of temper."

This whole sequence takes about ten minutes. These dramatic lines are perfectly embodied by Brando and Trevor Howard. Something happened! These is a big scene, played out to the max. Not one possibility for conflict or character nuance is left out, for Bligh and Christian or for the many supporting characters we have come to know by this point in the film. (This scene happens slightly after the 2 hour mark.) It is difficult to stay in a big scene, not to rush. But such scenes are so so satisfying when they are given the amount of space and time that they require for a reader/viewer to respond with full emotion.

At the end of the film, Fletcher dies. My father died not much later.
Are they in paradise? I don't know.

Sunday, May 6, 2012


It is Saturday night and I am doing what I do on many Saturday nights--watching videos on YouTube. Often I stay up nearly all night doing this, if I am alone in the house. Tonight I have watched (a partial list), Freddie Mercury's entire 25 minute performance at LiveAid; Neil Young--Old Man, Helpless, Heart of Gold; Cat Stevens, How Can I Tell You; several versions of The Only Living Boy in New York; as always, Sinead's Feel So Different; Coldplay 2000 Miles; What Do All The People Know, The Monroes; Somebody I Used to Know (Glee version!); Helplessly Hoping, CSN....

This is a lonesome activity, meaning nothing to anyone. Yet I am listening for a feeling--for the one where he says, "Play me every song you love, every single one, and I will listen/watch with you, no matter how long it takes." And I say, "I want to hear all yours, too, no matter how long it takes."

image by Banksy

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Killer Clothes

Recently I watched an HBO film called Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. It's about the West Memphis 3, three teenagers convicted of the murders of three eight-year-olds, and the story of their conviction, sentencing, long incarceration for murders they didn't commit. Why were they suspects? Basically, because one of the kids, Damien Echols, looked creepy. Black tee shirts, witchy drawings, cigarettes, maybe drugs...the hoodlum accoutrements. Echols was given a death sentence, and the other two life in prison, in spite of much exonerating evidence. It's best to watch the film if you want to find out what happened to them and why. I've been thinking about them ever since the news of the Trevon Martin case came through the feeds...the story of a teenager killed because he looked scary. He was wearing a hoodie.

I know lots of boys who wear hoodies and black tee shirts who have lots of assumptions made about them. Some of them are stopped by police, and arrested, for how they look. Kids wear these clothes to speak to each other, not to adults. Probably some boys want to look tough or scary. But it's up to adults to find out what they mean by their clothes before we incarcerate or kill them. How about some communication? Ask what's with the hoodie, the tatt, the all black clothes? How do you feel when you wear this stuff? Don't be surprised if the insightful kid tells you he feels safe.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Circadian Calm

My priest, the last one I had, used to say, when wrangling someone to serve on a committee, we each have the same 24 hours. My mind would cry out, but I am busy! When it did, I had made his point.

We each have the same 24 hours.

I hadn't caught up with Modernism when I wrote my first novel (in the drawer). I thought it was my idea to write in 24 hour segments. Well, it was a good idea.

I always had a sense of the day as being the big picture. Nature impressed it, I suppose. I deeply believe in dailiness, in its value. If you want depth, attend to your relationship, your book, your muscles daily. Two minutes, ten minutes, ten hours, that isn't important. It is doing something in the period of one circadian rhythm that matters.

Interruption is toxic.

I just had a week alone, at VCCA. I kept my head down and worked. I had a week of days. Each morning I woke up and lay in bed for a while, listening to the birds. I made coffee in the nearest kitchen, and wrote for a couple of hours. Then walked over to the dining room for breakfast, which I ate as silently as possible. More writing, thinking, reading. Lunch--a plate taken back to my room, not meeting anyone's eye. A break after lunch, phone a friend, go into town to Lou's Antiques, a walk at Sweetbriar. Back to the desk until dinner. Then back to the desk until my final step outside to look up at the sky, and to watch the horses in the dark.

Did you get a lot done? I wrote pages, revised pages, planned. The main thing, though, is that each day I poured from my sleeping self into my waking self completely, the way a tidepool is filled and emptied.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Very Special To Do List

Today I have the pleasure of introducing a new book of poetry by Sarah Salway. The book is called You Do Not Need Another Self Help Book. A bit further below, you can hear Sarah read a poem!

Here's Sarah.  Isn't she lovely? I am very proud of her, and to be her friend.

I met her at the artists' residency, VCCA, several years ago. We drew together quickly, and spent many hours walking the paths and trails at Sweetbriar College, talking about writing and other less august matters. Our friendship outlasted the residency, and became another mutual residency, and then visits back and forth across the pond. Sarah lives in England--can you hear it in her voice?

She is an amazing writer of short stories and novels, including Getting The Picture, Leading The Dance, Something Beginning With, Tell Me Everything, and more! She has been a Royal Literary Fellow holding the fort at The London School of Economics, and is presently the Laureate of Canterbury, in which role she is doing many exciting projects, some of which you can read about on her website. (See the link below, after you listen to the poem.)

Today's reading is part of Sarah's audio blog tour. You Do Not Need Another Self Help Book can be ordered from her website. Look under the Read Me heading. It will be officially published in March.

When you click on the link below, you'll hear a reading of a poem. 

For more about Sarah, including links to other stops on her audio tour, please visit here:


Congratulations, Sarah, and best wishes for this excellent book!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Two Steps Up

Loren was an early riser, relative to the rest of her family, and we'd hang out while I waited for her sister Tina, my best friend, to get out of bed--which usually happened around noon or later. The parents were late sleepers as well, so it was just the two of us up in the house in Wynnewood, doing as we liked. One of the things we liked was to watch Shirley Temple movies. Shirley Temple Theater was off the air by then--it only lasted for three brief years, 1958-61--but somehow we had a taste for her, enough to pursue a learning of her repertoire. We formed our own Shirley Temple Fan Club, with some degree of irony, but that was hard to sustain. Shirley was so enormously talented and charming, and the plots of many of her films sent us out of the television room to an attic in London or an hotel in New York or a southern plantation (yes, we were aware of the awfulness of these plots and settings)--more effectively than nearly anything else. The films were fantastical, and chocked with song and dance, but she embodied innocence and an uncanny ability to make herself heard--a trait alluring to me, I see now.

My favorite was The Little Princess. Shirley's father is lost in the siege of Mafeking, and because her school bills aren't being paid, she must go live in the attic and work at the school rather than being a regular student. (This idea doesn't go away; witness Newt's proposal to make poor students work as janitors in their schools.) I loved her relentless belief that her father was alive, her quest to find him, and the music of the word Mafeking. (When I went to South Africa some years later I very much wanted to see Mafeking--not really a tourist destination.)

Below is another favorite scene. Yes, it is from another era and there are all kinds of things wrong with it in terms of race and class. There remain, however, some points of value; the kindness to a child who doesn't want to go to bed, Bill Robinson's extraordinary dancing, and lesson in teaching.
The emotional content here moves me in two ways, the first being the actual scene shown here, and the second being the depiction of a process of working and learning that feels, if not literally accurate, resonant with what I know of working, learning, teaching. Do the step slowly, move ahead, drop back and do the step again with a bit more speed, move ahead further, and so on. That is still more methodical than I am, but this small scene is an emblem of practicing an art form, any art form. It is the case that for every person now living there has been a great who has gone before us who has figured out all the steps and can be studied as Shirley watches Bill to see how it's done. It is always a great leap forward when a student can look to the geniuses rather than the very goods and see through the perfect creation to the scaffolding underneath.

Loren and I were lucky to have our fan club, because it came about so naturally. There is a great joy in sharing the pleasure of a movie, book, painting, music in the company of another--really sharing it, not just sitting next to each other.  We were young, and it was fun. As one becomes older it becomes harder to reveal the emotion of responding to a work of art at a deep level of being. It's so private to experience moments that resonate with your soul. To show how it feels to read or to watch something meaningful is a self exposure that makes one very vulnerable. Mostly we quickly wipe our tears away, and are sheepish if anyone noticed them. To take an experience that is most usually a communion between artist and an audience of one, and to extend it to an audience of two--two together, in rhythm--is really an experience of love.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Epitaph: She Was Interrupted

Interruption. Here I am at 6 in the morning, getting ready to write, girding against what will intrude.
I know I only have a few hours before I have to stop and do the to-do list.
The dog is snuffling behind me on the bed; can't be helped. The cat is sitting right next to my computer and will need to be stroked periodically--a given.
Cars are roaring past, and every few minutes, an eighteen wheeler. That's life. Coulda, shoulda bought a house on a quiet street. Who knew? It sounded like a tomb compared to 96th Street.
Now I prepare.
1) Clear off the desk. Get everything out of sight except the grey wall. All my books are behind me. I am allowed to keep one book on my desk. It varies. Usually one I know well and can lift and drop. The criterion: good sentences.
My talisman
2) I suit up: fleece socks, Superman fleece pants, a fleece top. Warm slippers. Hair up in a clip. (Note: try to remember to change clothes before going out.)
3) Plug in my blue "fairy lights," as Sarah Englishly calls them. I have them strung around my room, for happiness.
4) Put my talisman next to me.
5) Get my supplies ready and in the right places: a notebook, the right pen, sharpened pencils, a yellow narrow lined legal pad, cat food, a pitcher of water, a cup of coffee, a blanket.
6) Light a candle.
7) Do breathing exercises for 10-15 minutes.
8) Write down the scene I am going to work on for the first stretch. Write down what it needs to do. Write down how it needs to feel.
9) Make sure I'm ready. Settled.
10 ) Turn on Freedom for 120 minutes.
11) Set timer for first session, 25 minutes.
12) Turn on noise cancelling headphones.

Now I begin.

Interruption is the theme of my life, I see that more and more clearly. I have a memory from when I was about eighteen months old, sitting on the beach in Cape May, looking out at my favorite grey ocean rolling toward me, thinking, thinking...I was thinking. Then someone picked me up. Who? I can't remember. Father, Grandfather. Lifted me off the ground, out of my thought, into their impulse to grab me. My thought was lost. I don't know what it was. I was interrupted. I am left with that memory of the vulnerability of my private life, how easily it could be whisked away by the needs of others, and how helpless I was to stop that. I still am. So much interrupts. I have learned to interrupt myself, with thoughts that are unessential and feelings that want to control other feelings, and so on. To write, I have to return to being the small child on the beach looking at the ocean. I know that. I know that in the space between what I thought and what I saw that day was my true mind, my self.
This is the beginning of an essay. Not what I am writing this morning. What I needed to think about to get ready for now, for finishing this story. The one I am writing now.
I often pause to write something like this, a blog post or a diary entry, just before I begin, to be in touch with one of Dicken's ghosts, the future or the past, before I sit in the present.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Dear Diary

One of the Christmas traditions I most enjoy is the afternoon when two good writer friends and I meet, raise a glass, and exchange presents. This year I gave them each a five year diary. Neither of them had ever written a diary regularly before, but they seemed excited to try it. I am curious to hear their experiences after a couple of years.

I have always kept a diary of some sort. I often keep a journal as well. The diary, the five year diary, only offers a few lines per day, and turns out to be a great challenge. Is this something to be written for posterity--or will I write exactly what I want? I think most people feel an onlooker, often judgemental, peering over their shoulders when writing a diary. The convention of addressing it with the word "Dear" implies this. Who out there is Dear--Dear enough to read my secrets? Or is the Dear meant to be ingratiating, to protect myself from harm? Do I tell Dear what it wants to hear and keep the truth to myself? Over time, I have evolved from one to the other. Dear now likes me or not. The question has become, what do I tell myself?

Much of it is dull: I went here, I went there. Some of it is pure emotion; I felt, I hated, I wept. All of it indulges use of the word "I"; a counter to how I was raised not talk about myself. (Like George H.W. Bush!) The diary is allowed to be about me and my reactions to life; my inner Anais Nin. Narcissicitic and self-fascinated. Where else does this fly?

The journal is more complex. It's mainly about writing, but every so often I take an hour or two to record a conversation or an event that I want to remember fully. The writing portion is notations for how to make whatever I am working on tighter, how to pull a metaphor through the scenes; it is an architect's notebook. Very messy. Notes for a map. When I have enough I draw the map, which is prettier, enough so that it can go up on the wall. That's late in the game, though. Mainly it's the wild notebook--quite unlike the tidy chemistry notebook that Gale Boetticher kept on Breaking Bad. Golly, that blew me away. Lines from Whitman, too. He didn't deserve what he got.
From Gale Boetticher's notebook...

Mine looks like this.
Though I don't write it backward as it appears. I don't imagine anyone is looking over my shoulder when I compose this--it is work, and only work. Capable of being immediately junked when I move forward with the project.
The diaries are meant to last, at least until I die, when I hoped they will all be burned, or go in the coffin with me. That would serve me right! If I am buried alive, as my grandfather always feared he would be, at least I'd have some reading material for the last few days. Though what could be more stultifying than reading about oneself while fading away?

I've gotten fairly comfortable with my diary, and tell it a lot. In fact, it's a record of how comfortable I felt writing things down. When I sit with it at night, it makes me aware me of what I choose not to say--how reticent I am. It's good to know my limitations. Keeps me honest.