Tuesday, January 23, 2018

On Winter Writing

Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way. — Ray Bradbury.

Last night left a dusting of snow on this morning of dim light and colorless sky. The temperatures were in the 50s yesterday. Today, we'll get no better than 34 degrees. I had to turn on the heater inside the writer shed an hour early to be sure it would be tolerable to remain inside for a few hours of navigating my way around what I've been writing. Still, there's beauty in the harsh air and the bleakness of a late January day. It's the shades of gray, the hues of white and black, and just enough chill in the air to remind you that we have some time to go before the newness of a spring. This is what I might label as the time of anticipatory despair. I predict more winter gloom before the light of a new season.

And this is exactly how I feel creatively.

It's not unusual. It's the norm. Anyone who creates feels this. What am I doing? Why am I doing it? Is this any good? Is anything I've ever done any good? Will I write myself out of a cold season into a warm one? I've had a sliver of success with my writing. A few awards. Relatively good reviews. But it's not about the outside accolades; it's about the inside accolades. 

Don't worry. This is not going to be some navel-gazing piece about artistic self-doubt. How trite. Pathetic. Boring. Instead, this is about how this sort of gloom, this kind of mini despair, is useful. Even needed. To get to the spring, one must endure winter and all its cold and seclusion and all those shades of gray. Just below the snow that has settled on the barren branches are the yet unseen buds of seasonal blooms. So, the writer puts on his heaviest boots, his thickest coat, his densest wool cap and trudges forth because he knows that if he can hike his way through the weather, knowing there is something good on the other side, he will discover some kind of art. He's been here before. He's questioned it all before. But he knows seasons change. They always do. He knows he's doing what he can. He knows there's something down there below the surface, under the snow.

Three hours behind the walls of the writer shed produced 2,464 words today. Time and space will let me know if any of them are any good.

Monday, January 15, 2018


I can't stop myself from taking notes. While having morning coffee, I jot things down in the little notebook that I carry with me most days; I send myself cryptic comments in a text or email when all I have is the phone. I talk through my thoughts—out loud—when I'm driving the dog to PetSmart to give her a bath and write one-word-remembrances on an old business card I find in the car's cupholder. And then, at some point, usually early in the morning unless it is bitterly cold—temperatures below 20-degrees—I head to the writing shed and get to work. If not, then to a local coffee shop.

I'm calling this entire process, this never-ending work of writing. #dayofwriting. 

Every writer I know keeps notes, is always thinking of writing, is hearing dialogue at a grocery store checkout and stealing moments from it. A well-known Chicago writer recently revealed at a reading that she got the title of her collection of stories while in the shower. Or was it while washing her hair? Anyway, you get the idea. Writing is...all the time. It's #dayofwriting. In reality, it's #nightofwriting, too. Dreams come to us and we awaken, searching for our notebooks to write it all down. 

Writing is a 24-hour gig. Not that it's digging latrines or delicate brain surgery. Not that it requires the bravery of a soldier or policeman; not that it employs the smarts of an MIT mathematician. But our heads are always churning, thinking, developing, observing, sensing, shaping, massaging. This is not a complaint or the rant of a look-how-special-we-tortured-artists-are writer. No, it's only a clarification of the work.

Let me explain. 

When I've conducted readings or workshops, I am almost always asked this question: When do you write?

I default to this answer: I'm a morning writer, mostly. I like early in the day. Can't write for more than a few hours at a time. I take a break and sometimes I get back at it later.  

But that's only the actual writing, the physical putting fingers on computer keys and trying to type out something that makes sense. The real answer to "When do you write?" is this: Every single moment of every single day. It's all the notetaking, the research, the staring into the sky, the walks around the neighborhood, the meeting at the college where I work when I should be thinking about curriculum and I'm instead wondering what my character is supposed to say in that critical scene when his father dies. The real work is being done between tiny slivers of time when I am doing something else. 


So, with this, I thought it would be fun, on a semi-regular basis, to post a video, a photo, a thought with the hashtag #dayofwriting, and document, for lack of a better word, the writing "process." Not always, but now and then, when I'm doing the work—the physical typing or just talking through something, daydreaming or hurriedly jotting down a nugget of information—I will share it at #dayofwriting on social media—Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. I'm currently trying to flush out a manuscript, so it's a good time—or maybe a bad time—to embark on this little exercise.

We'll see. Happy #dayofwriting. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Why I Write

I just read the final words of a wonderful book. It could have been the last sentences of many, many wonderful books that have sparked a new fire in me, but this time it was Patti Smith's Devotion, a short, soulful work on writing, the process of creation, and the call from something heavenly that turns the pen to write. 

There is now for me, as Patti writes, a "call to action" and a certain "hubris to believe I can answer the call."

Patti Smith, Courtesy Miami Book Fair
This is what great works do. They ignite.

When I was the writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac house in   Orlando, working in the same room where he clanked out on his old manual typewriter the first draft of The Dharma Bums,  I was overcome daily with the urge to rush into that bedroom space and inhale the DNA left behind, to ingest the mystical powers of the art of creation. 

In the attic space at the Ernest Hemingway birthplace home in Oak Park, Illinois, where I was honored to take on the duties of the foundation's writer-in-residence, I again was compelled to write, to accept a great artist's energy, and try to convert it into my own.

Kerouac's Orlando Home
So why do I write? To be like them? To copy? To emulate? To steal the light of their brilliance? No, it is not this. Instead, I write to be bigger than myself, to create something fine and layered in meaning, to discover what the greats had, what they found so unforgiving, so necessary a task. I write because there is no other way to exist. I write to resolve some phrase that needs care, to adjust a sorry sack of words into enduring sentences, memorable prose or poetry that will hang just above the moon to shine a soft light on what gazes below it, who wishes on a star. I write to discover, to illuminate, to wander and to wonder. I write not to mimic the greats but to become who I am through them. They are necessary, they are inspirations, they are godlike, but they are only images, reflections, monuments to what I strive to do every single day—write.
Dylan Thomas' Writing Shed in Wales

In my writing shed, my modest 8X10 studio on the property where I live, I keep an original watercolor of Dylan Thomas' boathouse. On the wall, I will soon hang a sketch of Albert Camus by artist Nick Young. And I'm planning to print a photo of the Kerouac home in Florida where I lived for that glorious summer and tack it to the planked wall.

L'Algerien by Nick Young

Each is a reminder to create something worthy of sharing, to write as one must in order to do far more than, as Patti Smith wrote, "simply live."

Why do you write? Why and how does it call you—that muse, that mysterious whispering spirit?