The Writing Life

I want to talk for a few minutes about the creative process. A couple of things have sparked this thinking in me recently and I thought it would be fun to try to write about it.

Many years ago I was studying for an M.Ed. at UVM, taking a class with Robert Nash, one of my all-time favorite professors. He specializes in something he calls scholarly personal narrative, which basically means that he believes that our stories are at the heart of our work. So we did a lot of writing and sharing of our writing. In one class he asked me about my writing process. I had no idea. I mean, absolutely no idea. I had never thought about it...well, I write things down on scraps of paper when I'm driving. And then I guess I sit down and write. I had never even thought about a process.

I had no process, no practice. I was undisciplined as a writer. But I sure loved writing!

About ten years before Professor Nash placed this question in my lap, I was living in southern California, teaching English at a private school. I was very lonely, far away from everyone and everything I loved. What a perfect time to become a writer, I remember thinking. Nothing quite like a good case of depression topped with a shot of melancholy to fuel the writing life. I bought a used typewriter and a pack of clove cigarettes and believed that would be just what I needed to Become a Writer. 

It didn't work, and the smelly cigarettes were particularly annoying to my housemates, who got up every morning at 6 to go surfing. 

If you came to one of my readings this past winter, you know this already, so take the dog for a walk or make another cup of coffee, you don't need to hear it again. Six years ago I went to Alaska and decided not to take my bulky, beloved Nikon. The thing about Alaska, though, is it shifts the molecules of your soul. I had my dad's old film camera, but it wasn't enough. I was seeing things and feeling things I needed to process, posthaste. So one morning, holed up in a room at the Alyeska ski resort, I wrote a story.

I started sharing my stories that morning, right here, in this little corner of the world wide web. I wrote, clicked on "Save & Publish," posted the link on Facebook and there it was. I was a writer. 

Kind of.

Along the way I have learned a few things about my process. This morning you get all my secrets. For free.

I love sharpened pencils and paper. I am a sucker for notebooks and the Staedtler #2 pencil, very sharp. 
I write when I am driving. There is something about the motion that gets the words moving.
I write when I wake up. I never write any other time of day. My brain works in the morning. By nightfall it's sludge and all I want to do is read. I love reading. I love bookstores and libraries. I hang out in them a lot.

I like to stretch myself in new artsy directions. I am trying to learn how to knit. This past winter I started sketching and I may move on to painting. Several years ago I became engrossed in floral design. I went to the flower warehouse on chilly winter days and wandered through the cooler rooms, looking at all of the different colors and shapes. Flowers engage so many of the senses; drawing requires that one slow way down. Knitting is tactically pleasing and the finished product is wearable!

Here is what's so great about learning something new: you have to ask a lot of questions. You have to seek out the people who know how to do the thing you want to know how to do. Your brain loves it when you do this. So does your heart.

Keep learning new things.

Travel, of course, inspires. Movement, new faces, new smells and visuals. 

I stopped drinking several years ago and find that this has had a positive impact on my life. No surprise there. My head is clear when I wake up in the morning. And I believe that ideas and dreams and memories flow more smoothly and freely through a substance-free body and mind. More room for the muse, if you will. Booze might make you feel more creative, but there's a tipping point at which you become a jerk. Too risky. Not worth it anymore.

I believe it's important to challenge yourself, always, your entire life. When I turned 45 I jumped out of a plane. I have one state left to visit. I have pretty much never stopped studying. At the advanced age of 49 I decided to become (I didn't really decide, but that's fodder for another story) a preacher. Which means that every week I have to do something that makes me a little nervous, gets me a little excited and keeps me humble.

The most important thing of all, I think, is a version of what I wrote the other day that Tom Waits said about writing songs. He said that you have to make your life into a good landing place for the songs, and he really nailed it. 

I can see now, looking back over these years, that I have endeavored to make my life a good landing place for the stories. Not on purpose, but more because my life has been largely fueled by my insatiable curiosity. I wake up in the morning now and do a little mental inventory: is there a story needing to come out? I search around, thinking of the things that have happened and people I have encountered recently, and when there is a story I head to the laptop and start writing. Almost always I have only a vague idea what is going to come out and I never know how it's going to end. The stories, in effect, write themselves. 

When I was younger I thought I needed a typewriter, then I thought I needed a studio. I thought I needed a drink and some cigarettes. I was wrong. I needed structure and accountability and this website has provided that for me. But writing is not about the external. Writing, for a writer, is already in there. It follows us everywhere we go, refusing to be ignored. If you were born to write, the writing will come out eventually. 

What is my process? Well, Dr. Nash, I will tell you: I sleep, usually quite well. And it seems that my stories take shape while I'm doing this, so that when I wake up they are ready to be told. I try hard to get out of the way once I sit at my laptop with a cup of tea in the morning. Also, I drive a lot and when I'm driving I talk to myself and I listen to music. I'm very good at entertaining myself. The car is where I get to be alone and the landscape through which I drive, here in Vermont, is highly inspirational. I take a lot of notes while I'm driving.

I try my best to build a life of great hospitality for the stories. I look for the joy and the suffering and the connections, I pay attention to the people I meet, then I place my hands on the keyboard and open my head and heart and let 'er rip. Amen.