Just Write

Yesterday when I finally sat down to work on my poem of the day, I was already feeling overwhelmed, frazzled, and stressed.

Here’s the thing though, if I waited until I was perfectly serene and inspired, I’d just never write.

That’s been the absolute-100%-most-important lesson that I’ve ever had to learn as an artist and writer. And I have to relearn it every single time I sit down.

I probably scratched in my notebook for nearly two hours. It was shitty. I kept writing.

By the time I had something I felt was at least worth the time I spent on it, it was much later than I usually stay up. Sitting to write is a practice like sitting to meditate. I can’t articulate why either is painful in the moment, but sometimes I reach a flow state and it seems to work, and even if I never attain flow, I always feel better after.

Poem A Day November

Yesterday I unfollowed like 400 people on Twitter. If you were one of them, sorry. It’s not personal, we just don’t have much in common anymore. I unfollowed tech influencers, marketing agencies and apps, and anyone who I didn’t recognize having either an interaction with, or an interesting opinion worth scanning past.

This is not a post about Twitter though. It’s a post about what happens when you clear clutter. Because once my feed was free from content marketers and SEO professionals screaming loudly about best practices, I saw writers and artists talking to each other. I saw faces I recognized (or knew in person) having meaningful conversations. And I also saw I was late to the annual writing party that happens in November.

I’m not a novelist, Jamie Morris. NaNoWriMo holds little appeal to me, except that I’ve met some rad folks at local meetups over the years. I am, however, a lover of poetry, and every year Robert Lee Brewer at Writers Digest posts a month’s worth of prompts on the Poetic Asides blog.

I like these prompts because they are the opposite of pretentious poetry prompts (and I say that with nothing but absolute love for pretentious poetry prompts).

Yesterday’s prompt was a two-for (because it’s Tuesday, of course). A “lost” poem, and a “found” poem.

Mine’s up there ☝🏻

I’m posting them on Instagram, if you want to follow along. I hope you will, and maybe take a stab at writing one or two.

What might you (re)discover if you made some space?

 

The wild mind and mine

While fleshing out my craft of writing shelves last year, I ordered a used copy of Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life. It was an add-on, an afterthought, really. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Writing Down the Bones. But how many more Buddhist-inspired writing vignettes do I need in my life? Let alone on an already crowded shelf, nestled between King’s sentimental On Writing, and Pressfield’s barking The War of Art*. I’m not even entirely clear on why I keep reading books on writing, since they’re all say essentially the same thing I already know (spoiler: writers write).

Nonetheless, the book arrived media mail from some shipper’s New Jersey warehouse, and when I opened the padded envelope, this is what I discovered:

Delicately inscribed on the inside cover, of all generic names, was John Miller. He’d stuffed the book full of post-it notes, scribbled in margins, and highlighted verses throughout. At first I was put off by the markings. But as I started reading Goldberg’s zen tales, along with John’s reactions, I became aware that he was another character I was responding to—wondering what he was writing about, why he chose certain passages to set apart, what he was hoping to accomplish with his careful annotations.

I could tell that he’d started skeptically, a lone post-it and a flag marking the exercises in the first few pages. Chapters One through Ten he was warming to, first with some sparse highlights. Warm up, he noted. Stay specific, he liked. You are safe, in yellow. He avoids Goldberg’s references to sex and the body, but writes, Be sensual, on a post-it as a reminder, as though he needs the reminder, truly.

It’s not until chapter 14 that a fire is lit—five yellow stickies and notes—The writing is the dance on the Sacred Ground, he declares. I realize John’s a deeply religious man and his notes liken free-writing to worship, musing that a well-written story has an inherent healing power in both the writing and telling.

wildmind2

There’s a woman in his life named Ann, and the very profound parts, he notes to read to her. I imagine them together on a porch swing together on a late spring evening. He tells her Goldberg’s story about how being immersed in your craft is inherently lonely, but that loneliness doesn’t have to equal despair. Ann misses him when he obsesses over his keyboard, but she grants him a thin smile, because she loves him. On Goldberg’s chapter on pleasure, Miller writes in the margins, solace, next to a highlighted sentence, “It’s good to begin from this place, for us to notice what brings us true pleasure.” He doesn’t mention Ann again in his notes, but at the top of Chapter 43, scribbles, Success is not love.

John’s own successes in writing have been a poor compensation, he notes in scrawling blue ink along the gutter, for the recognition he never received from his own parents—dead since he was a young man (…though we never had a chance to really know each other…). He could neither please them, or let go of his need for their approval. Yet he continued to write. He highlights Goldberg’s words, “Being a writer in our society is making a choice … outside the norm.”

If you’ve read Writing Down the Bones, there’s not a lot of new material in this one. Goldberg rehashes much of the same stuff in her same signature style. But this particular copy is precious to me. It was a guided journey through John Miller’s own Wild Mind. When I’m looking for inspiration and advice on craft, I find myself pulling it off the shelf, wondering what John found useful, what he found beautiful from Goldberg’s wisdom, and what that says about me.

 

*This one is my favorite.

A jar of real human feelings

I’ve started and scrapped this letter so many times already. It’s hard to be profound when it seems the world is spiraling out of control, isn’t it? It seems an inappropriate time for self-reflection, but that’s my schtick. I’m supposed to be teasing out a thread of meaning to offer you—some small idea to warm you like a blanket. All I have is a pile of rags. Shit’s fucked up, it turns out.

But sit down anyway, I’ll try to build a nest from these scraps.


In the grocery store a week ago, my son asked, “When you become a parent, who tells you how to do stuff?” I was engrossed in the ingredients list on the organic ketchup bottle, and surprised by the question (though why his perceptions surprise me still, who knows). Still, honesty befit the moment, so I went with that.

I’m just making it up. No one tells you how to be a parent and do things. You just make it up as you go and hope it all works out.

Panic fell across his face as he realized there was no pilot on the plane; no one was driving this bus. I felt a catch in my throat because suddenly, and finally, I understood the same thing.


I really enjoyed this episode of The Big Think, featuring Krista Tippett. The part that really stuck on me though, is when she talks about how we really meet our selves—we even become our selves—when everything begins to fall apart.

“We are made by what would break us.”

I think about this often. Pema writes in a similar theme:

“We’re so used to running from discomfort, and we’re so predictable. If we don’t like it, we strike out at someone or beat up on ourselves. We want to have security and certainty of some kind when actually we have no ground to stand on at all.

The next time there’s no ground to stand on, don’t consider it an obstacle. Consider it a remarkable stroke of luck. We have no ground to stand on, and at the same time it could soften us and inspire us. Finally, after all these years, we could truly grow up. As Trungpa Rinpoche once said, the best mantra is “OM—grow up—svaha.”

We are given changes all the time. We can either cling to security, or we can let ourselves feel exposed, as if we had just been born, as if we had just popped out into the brightness of life and were completely naked.

Maybe that sounds too uncomfortable or frightening, but on the other hand, it’s our chance to realize that this mundane world is all there is, and we could see it with new eyes and at long last wake up from our ancient sleep of preconceptions.”

I’m going to be honest with you. Historically, I’m not at my best in these times. I panic. I collapse. I crumble apart. (I write poorly.) Right now, in our big world, there’s not a lot of dry land to find footing on. There’s been a good deal of scary images and sounds and news bites floating across our various glowing screens the past few weeks, so it’s hard to feel grounded. I’m afraid that for me, groundlessness, if left unchecked, can slip into nihilism.

I feel shame around this, my coward’s defense, my surly cat. When I delude myself into thinking nothing matters, when I stop caring, my heart contracts and stiffens. Joy and pleasure drain away and I can lose my self there; I find it’s comfortable, even. Like lying down on a cool, stone floor. I can see right through that bottle, and it seems safe compared to the murk and muck you’ll find in a jar of real human feelings. I hate that about me.

It’s my great work, I think, to carry that particular truth of my self around my neck, while foolhardily, nakedly trudging through this mundane world just being a person for as long as I possibly can.

All of this is to say that I don’t know. And I am not wise enough or wealthy enough or strong enough to fix or fight the wrongs in this world. It hurts like hell to stay soft and find inspiration, but I can sit down with the pain that needs attending—that’s my schtick, after all. I can be vulnerable and honest, should it befit the moment. I can tell you that I’m struggling with panic and the instinct to bolt. I can try to grow the fuck up. But let’s be real, I’m just making shit up, doing the best I can.

Gentle Reader, I hope it works out. For my sake, as well as yours.

On fear

Fear is a useful tool we’ve evolved to save ourselves from big scary monsters that want to devour us.

There are no monsters now though, we’ve killed the beasts, save the ones we grow in our own hearts and minds. We’ve slain the dragons, then we became the dragons. It’s probably our most formidable foe, right? Our selves.

On the radio, they profiled a company that offers training for what to do in the event of an active shooter. The owner of the company shared that it was only after Sandy Hook that his business took off—from schools, to churches and public/government buildings—he is providing a valuable service to our society. My chest tightened as I listened. I could feel the monster in my heart turning over.

My son was always especially sensitive to monsters, but no monster scared him more than Darth Vader. Once a noble Jedi, Vader let go of his humanity and became the thing that was in his heart—darkness. Vader tormented my young son, who saw him in his nightmares every night. How could a man, a regular man, become so cruel? My boy, who with his child’s heart, still believed that the monsters were beasts and dragons, couldn’t understand Vader’s metamorphosis. But he was Luke’s father! he would argue, futilely.

There’s something lost in a child, I’ve seen it now, when the realization dawns on them, that the monsters we must face are each other. And us. That we feed them with rage and hate and oppression. That we corner our hearts and beat them until they snarl and bite. My instinct is to save them from that, but it’s futile also, because they have active shooting drills at their elementary school now. I can’t bring myself to imagine it even—their tiny bodies huddled in the art supply closet.

Fear is a useful tool, but I don’t want them to be afraid. I want them to be fully realized human creatures, with joyful and forgiving hearts. I want them to love themselves enough, that the monsters in them have nothing to eat and slink away into the night. I want them to dance, to learn, to laugh, and to cheer for their movie heroes. I want them to be safe from it all. I want to save them.

And I pray for all who could not be saved.

Bokashi

Bokashi composting is a system for eliminating food waste from your trash bins. I’m a big fan of compost—I have all the books and I even fancied taking the Master Composter course at the county extension office (alas the schedule conflicts with roller derby). This is to say, there are many different methods you can try to efficiently compost your kitchen scraps—it’s a whole science and art. Bokashi, in particular, uses a small, air-tight bin and requires that you cover your waste with inoculated sawdust (or some other carbon-rich substrate—I use coffee grounds because coffee is another passion of mine). This dust is alive with beneficial indigenous (ideally) microbes that break down the organic material in an anaerobic fermentation process. Yes. I like bokashi the best, because it ferments your garbage.

The thing is, it’s not enough to just toss some dust on your carrot tops and forget it. Once your bucket is full, the material still isn’t suitable for use in the garden, unless it’s aged so it can further breakdown. You have to bury it somewhere. Or leave it in a dark closet. Or find another compost sister system it can become part of.

This site, for so long, has been my bokashi bucket.

If you’ve ever written a blog, a book, or endeavored any creative pursuit, you can probably relate. To begin, you toss everything in. All the scraps of your day—the stuff that doesn’t make it to work, the stuff that doesn’t get talked out of you in meetings, the stuff you’re not Tweeting or posting on Facebook.

And then, it has to ferment. You’ve got to layer it with the good stuff. Treat it gently. Keep it in a warm, dark place. I think of fermentation as an act of stewardship, and creative incubating is the same.

The part I struggle with is transitions—it’s not an intuitive muscle I have developed. So knowing when my bucket is full, when it has rested sufficiently, when it’s composition has changed so much that it is no longer the thing it started as—that’s the trick. If you want the process to remain easy, you just guess, when it looks good enough, that it’s time to spread that shit all over. And then, you hope you garden grows better.

But this is really about writing. And how do you know when the words you’ve gathered have fermented into a new and useful and even beautiful thing? If you’ve gone through the process of gathering, layering, and resting in the dark places, when is it time to turn?

Allow me a moment to pivot back to my metaphor. The thing about composting is, you really can’t fuck it up. I mean, you could move it along too fast, and the worst you end up with is some moldy potato peels in your flower beds. Sure it might stink—it might even stink a whole lot. But even if it smells, it’s not lost. You can fix it. Or you can forget it and (eventually), it’ll be fine. The point is, your cabbage hearts are out of a landfill—you’ve already won.

But do something with it. Pull it out and stir it up first, if you must. But decide that it’s good enough to throw on the lawn. Otherwise all the effort you’ve put into your bucket is lost, bubbling in a closet, until everything that was good, that could have been good, that might have helped, has been eaten away.


Are you now as fascinated by bokashi as I am? If you want to get obsessed, here are some resources:

Fast time: On Medium

On April 2, 2006, the State of Indiana adopted Daylight Saving Time — or fast time as they called it in the diner I was working in at the time. The world had not come to an end, as the Anti-Savers had predicted. Cars were still running, corn was still growing, and only a relatively minor number of employees were late to work as a result of pushing the clocks ahead an hour. I had one particular ornery breakfast customer tell me that if she died before the fall back, the Governor at the time, Mitch Daniels, would have stolen an hour from her life. This short work of fiction was inspired by this person.

Read more on Medium →