The Delicious, Infinitely-Layered Cake

From Alex:

How do you make sure the middle of your book isn’t a slog, spinning its wheels before the good stuff comes along?

Dear Alex (and you),

It was four years ago (almost to the day) when I first started writing the book that I am still rewriting today. I remember the exact moment I started it; I was in my car driving home from work. I had just gotten married the week before, I finished my library degree and for all intents and purposes, had nothing on my plate for the first time in three years. I had stopped writing three years ago too.

I shouldn’t say I stopped writing. I didn’t really. I wasn’t writing a blog anymore or working on a novel that suffered a fate of perpetual false start, a story with the same problem. I had no plans to submit anything—at the time, I thought I would never write professionally again. One too many burns and a whole lot of anxiety. Plus, I had no money and it was 2011 and we were occupying wall street after it had already occupied us. I needed a real job, full-time, benefits. Stopping and starting the same novel/story for eight months proved to not be a real money maker after all. So I closed up shop and applied for my library degree.

But I was still writing. I kept a blog I wrote on for six months until I transitioned into poetry. I wrote so many poems between 2011 and 2014. They were perfect for the not-writer I considered myself to be. They would bubble up, a line here, an image there, and I would sit down and hurl the words out of my fingers faster than my mind could keep up. At first they were random documents on my computer. Then I collected them in a binder so I could look at them. Then I took them to readings. And eventually, I started to submit them. And once I started submitting them, it was as if the flood gates broke and everything I had been trying to ignore about myself (that I did want to write, that I would always write, that I wanted writing in my life more than anything else) washed away. The first day back to work after my wedding, (literally a Monday), I drove home with the thought of what now and of course. I got home, opened a new document on my computer, and started my novel.

At the time, I thought all I had to go on for the story was a single image and a flickering idea. I wrote around that image, dictated from the voice I heard talking about it. Just pages, no chapters. People but no story. I kept writing some poems but they got swallowed up by the other things I was doing—the stories, the essays, the book. I let them lie and took up the task at hand that I thought was far more important than the small things that had no bearing on anything else.

There was one point, a year after I started writing, that I thought I would give up on the book. I was doing the same thing I did before—starting, stopping, rewriting, starting, stopping, rewriting. I got a little mad at myself. I tried to make an outline, some kind of plan, but that only made me madder. I’m a super planner in life but when it comes to writing, I can’t plan a thing, not even this piece I’m writing right now to you. I went back to the poems. They’re easier, you see. They don’t have to work a certain way, call up anything for anyone except for me. They could be whatever style I wanted and it would still be right, at least to me.

But upon reading the poems, I noticed something. I was already telling the story I meant to write with each one. All the characters I was trying to sketch, all the setting, the theme, the trails. They were all already there, just a little buried. I thought I was writing something different and it turns out I was writing the same thing all along. It was clear, reading those poems, what mattered to me, what path I needed to follow, cause I couldn’t get myself off of it, even in my subconscious. I went to bed. I woke up the next morning. I opened the doc and added another 500 words like I did every other morning. Four years later and I’m still doing the same thing, still not tired of it, still ecstatically delighted with every new thing I learn.

All this to say that if we are writing, we are always in the middle of the book. And it’s always a slog. The wheels always spin but the point is they spin. Good stuff becomes shit stuff becomes good stuff again and you just have to show up and trust the process. Everything looks different from day to day because you are different from day to day. You are evolving with your story. (That’s all writing is—evolution via words.) You’ll write it and re-write it and write it again, uncovering each new discovery like a delicious, infinitely-layered cake. You’ll never finish. You’ll realize you began way before you thought you did. And one day, it will click and feel right and you will know that it is as close to true as you can get it. Not done, but true. And then you’ll give it to someone else to read and you’ll start on the new slog, already buried in the muddled middle.

Writing in the Dark

Dear you,

The past three months have felt a little like an entire year. For one, it’s cold. I don’t do well in the cold. Two, I am both in between projects and not in between projects. (It defies all natural laws but here we are.) And three, I am working in isolation.

First, the cold. Really, who in their right mind loves the cold? I know you’re out there. It makes my bones ache. My muscles tighten to rock. I’m not sure if it’s new allergies or age, but now it seems that winter also always brings an illness or two. I see people walking to the bus wearing flats without socks and I kind of want to scream at them for any number of reasons. Cold makes me anxious. Anxious me tends to be an angry me. It’s the most readily available emotion, easiest to call up and worst to feel — my junk food emotion. I check the weather every day looking for the little sun icon, for a number above 50. Meanwhile, I have become a person who thinks 40 degrees isn’t too shabby. Despicable.

Second, the projects. For reasons I can’t go into detail on here, I am rewriting my book. Again. Yes, again even after that last time. There is no deadline to this except for the one I put on myself so of course there’s a deadline and of course it feels tight. Before I can rewrite, this time I must outline. It is required. And I will tell you a not secret — I am not a writer who outlines. I am a writer who understands how much easier her life would be if she were, but I am not. And so writing this outline has been a lot like how I wrote the book: paste it together, tear it down, paste it together, tear it down, paste it together and rejoice because I finally got it right, tear it down two days later when I admit a glaring error, rinse and repeat, on and on. Oh sure, I’ve taken breaks. I set it down and walked away over the holidays. And it helped in that it made the tearing down just a little easier, the rebuilding a little faster. Holes filled, pathways revealed, all of that. But still — tear down, paste, tear down, paste almost every morning of every day because every day there was a little more light, another clue clicked into place, a little more hope that I was getting it right. I won’t say I got it right this time because I no longer believe in “right.”

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This took five days and an untold amount of coffee. And no, it still wasn’t right.

 

Meanwhile, another book is tapping. Lightly on my shoulder, yoo-hoo over here. I make notes. There is a flash every once in a while and I think “Oh, this one will be such a good book!” and then I file it away because there are other things that need finishing right now. Anyone else would tell me to start writing it, to take advantage of those moments, and they’re probably right. But there’s a part of me that thinks there are not enough of those moments yet. They need to build and simmer and wait until they’re impatient and then and only then will I sit down and do what needs to be done. If there’s any alchemy to the job, it is this.

Third, the isolation. Not true isolation, obviously. I live in a city and I have social media. I have writing friends, a critique group I attend. But in the end, there’s no one else in the room when I work. Specifically, there’s no one else in my head (I hope.) Planning this outline, shifting things, cutting and pasting (literally, in some cases) has felt like an elaborate never-ending chess game played against the computer and I am somehow both the player and the computer. I am the winner and the loser, the enemy and the friend, depending on the hour or the day. I tried to pull others into this madness with me — I got critiques, I talked at my husband (who graciously listened and then backed away quickly because of that whole anxiety/anger thing), and I complained to the friends who love me enough to listen and tell me to get over it. But still, it’s only me waking up every morning and working in the dark.

This sounds more sad than it is. But as much as I hate the cold, I love this quiet dark. There is something so freeing in waking up well before the sun, sitting still in a quiet room, and looking out a window where nothing is happening. No birds, no cars, no one walking their dogs. I can feel time stretch out before me like a blanket; I can wrap myself up. Just me, a couple pieces of paper, the glow of the computer, a dark window of the kind only found in winter.

The truth is, once I remember that it is only me at the table, a kind of peace settles over. I stop searching. I tune in to work. That is what we’re here for anyway. Space to do the things we love. Loving it enough to do it without anyone watching. All potential, no applause. Leave it to isolation to set you right.

So that has been my winter. Frustrating and eye-opening and hopeful and still here. Six more weeks to go and then we go again.

Now We Start Again

Dear you,

After three years of writing a book I had already tried to write three years earlier, I finally finished that book (as finished as I alone can get it), offered it up, and settled in to wait.

Waiting in the form of books read by sunrise, morning meditations, walks. Full, long, self-satisfied breaths. A clean(ish) kitchen. The garden pulled, tomatoes dried.

But waiting is hard, even if the tomatoes taste so good you consume them before you can save them, and waiting is especially hard when you realize how much of your day was consumed by that book, how much it crowded out any brain space for anything else. The mind abhors a vacuum and the space between creative projects is just that—empty. So I put my mind on search, and lo and behold, the next thing was right there waiting for me to finish waiting and notice it.

But of course it’s never that easy, and although the thing grew impatient as I hemmed and hawed over how to start it, my mind couldn’t get over the fact that it has been three years since we’ve been in this position. A large-scale project, mornings as blank as the pages, an image or two to go on but no sense of who or what or why. Like a jigsaw puzzle once all the border pieces are put together—where do I begin?

I have been here before. The start of every project, large or small, comes with this same feeling of walking through a dark corridor, groping for doorknobs, wondering what waits behind the door you’ve managed to find. I vacillate between whether or not this process is harder now than it was the first time around. The first time around, there was no light at the end of the tunnel, no way of knowing what the end would look like it when I got there, if the path I was on was the right one (or not even just the right one but not the completely wrong one.) None of it mattered because no one knew I was trying to do any of it. I had no critique group, no published stories, no friends that knew I was actively writing. I even kept it a secret from my husband. Easier that way, should I choose to throw in the towel.

But I eventually told my husband that I was writing a book, all shy and quiet like he would be alarmed by this news. I went back to the critique group I abandoned years earlier the first time I abandoned the book, slinking into the room, embarrassed for having been gone so long, long enough that only two of them even remembered who I was. I started submitting stories and poems, sharing the acceptances when they came. I made this website, started this blog, little by little identified myself until the title of writer became synonymous with the title of librarian.

And now, here I am—back in the brain space of the genesis of a long project but no longer in the genesis of my identity as a writer. Needless to say, it is difficult to rectify the two.

So how strange that just as it is time for me to start a new book, it is also time to start a new garden. And not just any new garden, a fall garden, something I have never had the opportunity to grow before.

One by one, I had pulled up my plants from the summer, too distracted to think about what should go in their place for the fall. Distracted by the queries I was submitting, the manuscripts I sent in response, stories I was proofing, the interminable waiting for anyone to answer me regarding anything. Much easier to refresh the inbox than to plant vegetables I had only eaten a handful of times before, much less seen in the ground, much less grown myself. But staring at the inbox never made an email appear, just as staring at a blank page never made words appear, just as staring at a seedless ground never made food.

So I went to the farmer’s market. Having procrastinated long enough, I found that everything was already gone, of course, with the exception of swiss chard, collards, brussel sprouts, and some kale all of which I took to plant (exception: kale, because just no.) Not to be deterred, I pulled out my seed collection, my starter pods, and the grow light, and planted everything I wanted—broccoli, carrots, spinach, beets—even if it is too late, even if it comes to nothing. It is a rebellion of sorts to plant when you know it is too late, just as it is a rebellion to start a project before you feel ready. You do it anyway, giving the finger to expected results and celebrating when you are pleasantly surprised.

I nestled these babies next to my desk, the glow of the grow light warm on my arm, same place they were when I re-wrote my book for the third time last winter. The metaphor here obvious and cliche but I swear—there is magic in growing seeds next to your desk when you are growing the seeds of a book on the page.

Every morning comes. Better now because it comes still dark, before the sun rises. I turn on the lamp, say hello to the seeds and give ourselves one halo of light in which to do our work. We are in it together, me and these seeds. I breathe like a tentative footstep and start again.

Seek Like a Child

Dear you,

Today is the last day of my twenties. I would like to tell you that I’m handling it well, and for all I knew up until last week, I really was handling it well. Everyone knows that the thirties are way better than twenties. Things come easier because you’re older and wiser enough to figure the answer to a question faster. There is no #adulting, there is only an adult.

And I have wanted to be an adult for so long. To be that older, wiser person. To have the hard won answers. I have wanted to be an adult so much so that I aggressively jump into every adult To-Do item like I won’t have time to do it tomorrow. I handle my and my husband’s budgeting, retirement accounts and investments, our health insurance and life insurance (yes, we do actually have life insurance because I am unsurprisingly not unconvinced that one of us will drop dead tomorrow), and I inventory the food and amenities in our house at the drop of a hat to make sure there is always enough, always something there to catch us should we run out of cash and need to eat mac and cheese for a few weeks. (No, this hasn’t quite happened yet; most times I just eat the mac and cheese cause it’s mac and cheese, but I always replace the box because you never know when you’re going to need cheap mac and cheese.)

I was this way in Texas and it’s only worsened in Nashville. Like survivor-level worsened. I am learning to preserve food like my life depends on it and yes, it really upsets my day when we throw away something we could have eaten but let go bad. I am hoarding books on what to do in case of emergency. (What emergency? Any emergency. First aid? Check. Economic collapse? Check. Fall of civilization and war-level conflict? Check and check.)

I could blame all this on He Who Must Not Be Named, and certainly the fault of a portion of this anxiety does lay at the feet of a government that’s done a 180 in six months, the collapse of the concept of truth, and a feeling that the world at large is getting ready to hole up and get theirs, others in need be damned.

But the uncertainty was here before January, before last August when we moved. It was here in 2009 when I was fresh out of college, freshly unemployed, and fresh into experiencing my first major economic recession. It was here when I was twelve and everyone around me was convinced that the computers weren’t going to know one year from another causing the world to collapse into chaos at the stroke of midnight. And it was here when I was a little girl and was told that good people went to a good place after they died and bad people went to a bad place and you better believe I fretted over what would be considered good enough to be loved and what could be bad enough to be unloved.

The uncertainty has been here all my life. It was here before me and it’ll be here long after me. But I guess, for some strange reason, I simply thought that uncertainty at thirty would be far easier than uncertainty at twenty. The reality is that it’s not; it’s the same and sometimes even feels worse because there is less time and more to lose.

For whatever reason, perhaps the ticking clock of my birthday, the fact that my birthday also now symbolizes a full year spent in this city, or we could simply blame it on the heat — all of this came to a head this past week. It was a rough week, so to speak, and by the end of it, I just wanted to be in silence.

So I went for a hike. The beautiful thing about this city is that there is no lack of trails set in large forests with climbs and views. There are so many that it’s easy to find a trail where no one else will be and, thanks to Nashvillians believing that 90 degrees is “hot,” there weren’t too many other people there this Saturday when I went into the forest.

I have a hard time with hiking trails and day hikes. Growing up in prairie and forest, a good hike to me means bushwhacking through brush and seeing what hasn’t been seen before. A hike on a trail maintained by a state park department means following an easy path and seeing nothing new. I much prefer backpacking where you can get away, have the phone out of service, carry everything you need on your back, really have to be careful or you really may not survive. (And if you’re wondering why I have to make everything so hard for myself, I wonder that too on a daily basis.) But I went because I figured I should, because I figured it would get me close to what I was looking for.

I followed loop after loop to extend the trail as long as I could until the last leg of the trail stopped in the middle of the forest. At the end was a clearing and three rotten wood benches in a circle. I took off my pack and lay down, feeling no more strong or fragile than the branches above me. There was something to this silence and this solitude that was comforting, something I had been missing. But it wasn’t the silence or the solitude itself. There was something underneath it and I searched to name it. But the airplanes were still flying overhead and a motorcycle could be heard in the distance, and after forty-five minutes of quiet meditation some other hikers holding loud conversation approached so I packed up and left.

It wasn’t until the next day that I put my finger on exactly what it was I missed. I spent the morning in solitude and in silence (as close as it’ll get in this city) and worked over what this rush of uncertainty could all be about. What was it that made me hoard safety in the form of a firm budget, preserved food, and insurance payments? I thought of the forest and how begrudgingly I took the day hike, how part of it didn’t feel real until I sat alone under those trees and thought about the quality of strength.

And then I thought: Perhaps I am having a crisis of faith.

I can hear my mother now yelling, “Go to church!” But it’s not church that I’m missing. The crisis of faith had to do specifically with the idea that I had always believed everything would turn out okay. No matter how bad anything gets, it’ll end up the way it’s supposed to. It will end, essentially. The fear and uncertainty will end, the same way Job’s suffering came to an end when God revealed it was all a bet with the Devil.

The work I do, the way I have always lived my life, has always been built on the foundation of people are good, the world bends toward kindness, you are not alone. I have to be able to believe that I am of service to whatever positive energy is out there and that that same positive energy will be of service to me. But being in this new city, grappling with this new world, it has been hard to feel the positive energy under all the discomfort.

Fear and uncertainty have been with me as long as I have been me. Continually leaning into discomfort seems to have become a recent pastime. I needed to go somewhere safe. The forest came close. But real safety came in the form of a meditation group I joined that morning.

I have been practicing meditation for a few years now but I’ve certainly fallen off this year. Of course, the time when quiet contemplation is most needed is the time it is the hardest. I know this and yet I still wasn’t taking my quiet time seriously. But as someone who has always kept a path to spirituality in whatever form it may take as a priority, it suddenly became very clear where the fear and loneliness came from.

So I went to the group, fear of lost faith far outweighing the fear of the unknown. We sat in meditation, we walked in meditation. We clustered ourselves wall to wall into a small room and took in each other’s presence. And then we talked. I was not the only one feeling a loss of faith, a lack of safety, a fear of something that cannot be named.

But we sat with it, together. We looked each other in the eye and acknowledged that what makes us afraid. And in that discomfort, we found faith in each other.

Being an adult feels like it should mean knowing the answer, being responsible, doing the right thing. But the world is hardly so clear cut. What worked before doesn’t always work again; there is always the need to evolve.

Sometimes, being an adult means never forgetting the little things learned in childhood. Every day features a new thing to fear and it’s easy to focus only on that one black hole in the vision. But there are so many occasions for grace. I learned long ago one need only seek like a child.

 

Writing on Auto-Pilot

Dear you,

 

Always, when I move to a new location, I stake out the spot for the garden. This year seemed especially urgent that I have one — new place in a new region with a long, forgiving growing season, and desperate times of the country called for desperate measures, which is how I ended up with a worm farm and homemade yogurt, among other things.

After the election, I gorged myself on homesteading books all through the winter. I called representatives and then read about seeds. I marched in protest while the bread rose. I shredded newspapers with horrifying headlines about new awful things I couldn’t control and bedded them in the compost for the worms to eat. I planted a tree started from a single branch and celebrated each leaf as a form of resistance.

In my zeal to right the world within my control, I started seeds too early. I needed to create something new, something that cared not about the state of the world aside from how much light and water was available, so I planted seeds in February knowing I was doing it for my own selfish distraction.

I grew the seeds in little rows under a growing light next to my desk. Every morning, I would switch the lamp on and we would all bask in the sun trying to make something work. They grew; I wrote. They grew root bound (still too cold to plant them outdoors) and I still wrote, though I felt like I was writing in circles.

I mentioned that I am re-writing my book. I have re-written it several times and every time I finish, I feel relief. Until I think of the story and still have the nagging feeling that something is not correct.

Every book and story is personal for the creator, and this book is no exception. In the making of it, it always feels far more personal than it should because it requires the writer to dig deep on memories and emotions they would rather keep hidden. And again, this book is no exception.

There are several scenes in this book I do not want to write. I have been writing around them in a diminishing circle. I feel closer after each draft and after re-reading the draft I feel no closer at all. At the worst of it, I can see where the shift occurs and I begin writing on auto-pilot to get through the parts I don’t want to deal with.

But now, everything outside of those last few scenes is said and done. There is nothing else to focus on and yet the book will not be complete until I do these last few things. It seems easy and yet every time I sit down to do it, there is always some other more pressing thing to do, like write this blog post.

At the DFW Writers Conference, my dear friend Kelsey Macke led a workshop on writing with conflicting emotions, how to dig through our own experiences and find the empathy needed to do justice to what the character feels on the page. And sometimes that requires an excavation of our worst pain. There is a point, Kelsey said, when you just have to close the door and cry.

And that’s where I am. I spent this week filling a notebook with more versions of how I could circle around the real pressure point. Post-it notes of ideas leading to nowhere litter my desk. Another dear friend, Annie Neugebauer, listened to me go round in circles until I landed back to the storyline my subconscious gave me in the first draft, but that I tossed out because I was too afraid to go any deeper with it.

The seedlings I started too early mostly ended up in the compost. The embarrassing part is that I actually cried when I uprooted them and reburied them for the worms. I grew these living things knowing they were doomed because I grew them before they were ready. And I grew them anyway because I wanted to ignore something else.

There are a few seedlings that did make it to the garden. I transplanted them once, twice, and a third time before their final homes because I refused to have done all this work for nothing, forgetting totally that everything is a learning experience.

It feels the same with all the drafts written that went to nowhere. How could I have done all this work only to throw it all out? Those seeds were planted as a salve for my own broken heart over the world; they were a way to distract when I really needed to heal. And so it is with all the scenes I wrote on auto-pilot; place-holders until it was time for the real thing—time to switch off the auto-pilot and steer through the storm. That time has now come. There is nothing left to do.

The few seedlings that lived are now large, almost full-grown. I visit them everyday and coo over them in a way that alarms my husband. I count their flowers and pick off the bugs. I wait and watch the bees do their work, lean back in my chair and smile. There is nothing left to do but bear fruit.