Walls, Doors and Windows

I am thinking about walls, doors and windows, and the rooms that many writers feel they are kept out of. The feeling is real. I have a lot of experience with walls, doors and windows. Besides the fact that I spent a good deal of my writing and publishing life cleaning these things, as well as toilets and bathtubs and carpets and kitchens, I have also felt closed out of the ruckus that is writing.

The ruckus I am talking about is the world of visibility. It can seem like there are writers who are very visible who are ignoring the writers who are not. It can feel like a club you’re not let into. It can feel like standing outside a house and looking at a grand party going on inside while knocking on the doors, the walls, the windows and never gaining entry.

I have experienced some real bullshit in the writing world. It’s there. I used to complain and whine a great deal about it. I was sure that I was deliberately being kept out of the greatest party on earth. The truth is, this feeling of being left out came from my own feelings of inadequacy.

Here are some of the myths I had to dismantle:

Myth Number One: The greatest party on earth. Like every party, there are some wonderful people here and some real assholes, and it’s not always easy to tell the difference. But you can believe this: everyone in the house worked their asses off to get here. And if you’re working your ass off too, and feel like you’re not being invited in, let me suggest that the greatest party on earth is really just a lot of sub-parties. Chances are you’re already in and don’t know it.

Myth Number Two: Once invited into the greatest party on earth, you’re always in. This is simply not true. You never know when this magic thing called writing is going to kiss you goodbye. A hot shot writer today might never publish another book. Or the next book might be a terrible flop. Or the whole desire and drive to write might just leave you, and you decide you’d rather be a serial killer than write another word. And then you’d only be invited in as someone’s character (we hope). Again – writing is hard work.

Myth Number Three: Once I am a celebrity life will be easy and I will be respected. Not true. Re. the respect, you’ll never be respected if you don’t respect yourself, and that relates to not worrying about being kept out of the party and just doing your work, which is hard. Writing is hard. But, besides writing being hard work, you know what else is hard work? It’s hard work to have and maintain a public life. It takes a lot of juice to remain visible, to give to the public the best you can think of to give, and to receive from the public both love and criticism. It’s very difficult to do this, and retain the spaciousness and silence to research and write deeply on the next work. All this stuff takes time, but also soul and energy. Sometimes, a person with a public life just needs time and space to herself. Sometimes, a person with a public life must disengage or never write again. And sometimes a person with a public life disengages by degrees. Do not assume it’s personal.

And Then There’s This Truth- I’ve found that talking about the walls only makes the walls thicker. The more closed doors I see, the more closed doors there are. Forget about the hierarchy, which is both real and not real. The less I think about not being in the company of the giants, the more I become a giant in my own world, and the easier it is to see my place in this party called writing, and the more I understand that while we all differ in where we are in the party, we are all important. We’re all cells in an organism. Who’s to say which cell is more important? Who’s to say that someone isn’t struggling, just because we have different struggles? Who’s to say that some struggles are better than others?

Just relax. Writing is hard enough without worrying about whether one belongs or does not belong to a particular club. And believe me every writer has felt invisible at some point. If he or she hasn’t felt invisible, I doubt he or she would be writing.

Posted in Advice, class, Community; Genorosity, Comparison, Competition, creativity, economics, Elitism, emotion, Energy, failure, Gratitude, happiness, Magic, Maintenance, privacy, Process, Public appearances, research, Self-worth, silence, soul, spaciousness, spirit, success, survival, The Writer's Life, Uncategorized, Visibilty, work, Writing career | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Art of Listening

If you are a writer, you must listen. You must listen to your instincts. You must listen to the world. You must listen to the things that lack conventional voice. You must listen to the trees, the river, the deer, the rocks, the fungus, the rust, the sunrise and the moon. You must listen to your characters, to the sound of vowels, to the rhythm of language as well as its meaning. You must disengage, every day, from the noise and commerce and traffic and politics of the world. You must not let anyone tell you how to do it. You must not let anyone tell you what’s important. You must not let anyone tell you that you must do A, B, or C.

What fed your soul as a child?

Find it.

What did you do before the serpent of social media?

Find it.

Where were your secret places before you became an adult?

Find them.

What calmed your heart?

Find it.

What quieted your mind?

Find it.

What circumvented the chatter?

Find it.

What is the last thing you picked up off the ground and put into your pocket?

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Free Advice

When you’re a writer, you receive a lot of free advice. A good deal of it (most, I’d say) comes from people who do not write. I’ve been told I have to learn Latin (which I have nothing against, but don’t consider a requirement), read Proust (again, nothing against Proust, but it’s not a requirement), don’t quit my day job, do quit my day job, read Bridget Jones’s Diary because I might learn something (dispensed from a man in the grocery store to whom I used to sell bread – and for the record, nothing against BJD but …), write a mystery, write a fantasy, write YA, write an Oprah book (I’m working on it, believe me), write a best seller (ditto), write short stories for Playboy, Esquire, and The New Yorker (I haven’t even tried).

I could go on with this. A plethora of free advice was dispensed to me from complete strangers early in my career, a great deal of it before my first novel was published and a great deal of it before my second novel was published, in that sort of twilight space in which I’d proven I could write, but had not yet proven I could write again.

The free advice used to infuriate me. So much of it felt incredibly distant from the life I lived, and even from the life I was trying to build. Well, I’ve built that life now, and it’s far better and richer than the one I imagined, and the free advice has fallen off. It seems I might have some of my own ideas on how to go about being a writer.

So, here is my free advice to writers, for what it’s worth. Like all free advice, it’s suspect.

Write. Write all the time, even when it is not a project for publication. Write badly. Write just because. Don’t listen to advice from strangers. They are all strangers. Know yourself. Know your work. Know your characters. Listen only to the invisible people in the room. Don’t try to sound smart. Prove nothing to nobody. Make some friends – real friends who are willing to listen to your fears, (although you will not be calling it fear at the time) without judgement. Have friends who can hold up a mirror to show you just how fierce you really are. Grow fangs and claws and wear your heart on your sleeve. Dumb down so that everything is new. Be an expert in nothing. Always begin. Appreciate tree frogs, and rescue them when they get caught between the shutters and the wall. Take walks in the dark. Give money away. Let your stories breathe without publication. Let them breathe with publication. Love senselessly and enthusiastically. Write down everything that crazy fucker at the laundromat said to you. Describe hands. Watch bracelets jangle down wrists as wine glasses are hoisted. Look into people’s eyes. Don’t look into people’s eyes. Visit with snails. Visit the dead. Stand with one hand on the tombstone of the infant daughter and the other on the tombstone of her parents and feel the current. Turn off the TV. Don’t listen to the news. Pay your bills. Live cheap. Work a job that has nothing to do with art. Drive a car with a lot of bumper stickers on it that contradict each other. Have an identity crisis. Quit and start again.

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Letter to Self

Dear Nancy,

What can I tell you that, deep inside, you already know? The world is a rough place. Find the beauty. It is what will save you. The fear you feel at the publication of a new book is totally normal. The shutting down you’re feeling probably has to to do with the same sort of out-of-control feeling you had as a child, that feeling that your space is not your own.

Above all, you value your own space. You don’t stuff a bunch of junk between your ears and you never have. The fact is you’re probably a little traumatized right now because of He Who Shall Not Be Named. Whenever you’ve encountered a man like that you found a way to leave. But he’s everywhere. And his minions are everywhere too. And they’re angry. They’re angry at you for being a woman. They’re angry at our president for being black, and a Democrat. They’re angry at people of color. They think they’ve been screwed, and maybe some of them have, but not by the people they’re angry at. But they need someone to blame, and He Who Shall Not Be Named loves to whip them into a frenzy and they feel empowered by their hate. Honestly, this is a movie you’d walk out on, gladly losing your $8.00 and throwing your bag of chemical popcorn in the trash just to leave. But this movie keeps on running, and running, and running.

So there’s that, and even if you could ignore it all, the energy would still be there. This dark cloud that’s been spewed into the atmosphere.

But you must take care of yourself, dear. You must do it in all the ways you have done it before. Find that beauty. Go outside. Get alone with yourself. Write in your journal. Read a good book. Listen to the waters, and the sky, and the birds, and the trees.  Believe in something larger than this madness. And so often the large thing you must believe in is in the small things. Listen to the snail if he will talk to you, and he will if you will listen.

Don’t cry, sweetie. It will be all right. The world is both fragile and tough. The dragon beasts are being slayed, but they have to breathe out their vitriolic fire before they go down. Think of it as a death rattle. Turn it into patterns in your mind. The rise and fall of a shit storm. Wish those people love and light, even though they wish nothing of the sort for you or your friends or your community. Rise above.

Give thanks – my home, my husband, my friends, having food, writing, my work, my community, the river. There are those who do not have all that you have. Pray for them.

Be kind – I can do that. Be thankful that you can for there are those who cannot be kind as often as you are. They’ve misplaced that skill, or it’s been taken from them in some sort of way. Pray for them too.

Do your work – Doing it. Pray for yourself as well.

Love, Your Better Self

aka Nancy

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Low Tide

I have spent most of my life not paying attention to the world at large. This worked for me. Whatever happened, if it was bad enough, or important enough, I’d find out about it. Whatever knowledge I needed for my writing came to me. It was, I see now, a life of faith, a life in which my mind was kept clear so that I could focus on a story.

Besides writing and reading, there were a few other things I loved. I loved cooking and nesting. The domestic arts, and life at home were always a big comfort to me. I actually loved cleaning my house, but then I started cleaning other people’s houses for a living, and the desire to get out the vacuum cleaner on a weekend, or to kneel on the bathroom floor to wash the ring out of the tub left me. Even though I still loved to have a clean house, even though I still recognized that a clean house delivered a level of calmness to me, I could no longer make myself perform the tasks that would result in that.

So it is sometimes with writing. Too many words in my life, be they my own, or from the million voices on the computer, can result in an inability to bring forth the desire to write. The juice is gone. I feel dried up and exhausted. The only thing I want is TV, preferably a sitcom that I am familiar with, that demands nothing of me.

But these days a published author does not have the luxury I had in the early days, the luxury of completely turning the world off, the luxury of living reclusively and in faith. Yet that is what’s required to keep on writing, to keep on being creative, to bring forth the tides of imagination.

Tides is perhaps the right word here. There are, in a creative life, high tides and low tides. Low tides are natural. Low tides are rhythmic. Low tides are the time to go swimming. I am learning, finally, that when I feel like quitting writing it is a sure sign that I need to quit something, that I need to back off from the noise of the world, that I need to find a way to submerge in the salty waters and quiet the world.

This is not easily done. The publishing world, the commercial world assures us that if we back away for even a nanosecond we will be forgotten. In truth it doesn’t matter. If I can be forgotten that quickly, that easily, then I will be forgotten. But if I can keep on making art, I will at least be making art, doing the thing that I want to be known for in the first place. Because, let’s face it, I don’t want to be known for my brilliant tweets. I don’t want to be known for my Facebook posts. I don’t want to be known for this blog. I want to be known for my writing, and as a person who helped other people with their writing. And the only way I can be known for those things is to make friends with their source and learn to dance in both high tide and low tide.

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Is Confidence Necessary?

I am at an age where I look back on my younger self with great tenderness. I wonder what happened so early in my childhood that my confidence was completely wiped out. There are of course institutions and people to blame: parents, adults, church, school, advertising, TV, other children, teachers – I could go on.

What happened though was no one person’s fault. It was a system, a tsunami of cultural messaging that I couldn’t untangle from, that wrapped its tendrils around my feet with every step I took, that pulled me backwards, or down, or away from my own heart. I knew my heart then, but I could not speak what was in it without ridicule, or arguments, or someone denying its truth. I became an extremely silent child, a child afraid of being wrong, a child afraid she was wrong. A child who felt stupid, and bored, and who retreated into herself more and more as time went on.

But time did go on, and the demands of childhood went on too. There were things I wanted: Attention, no attention. To shine, to not be seen. To be pretty, to fade away. To be loved, to not be noticed. For someone to be proud of me, to disappear. To be popular, to be totally alone.

I loved the woods. In the woods no one asked me to point out Taiwan on a world map, and no one asked me to recite multiplication tables, and no one asked me to give my life to Jesus. In the woods I could trust something. I could trust the woods.

I used to fantasize about living in a cave – a furnished cave with a bed, and rugs, and a cat, and books. But what would I eat? Cereal would be good, I thought. I could sneak back home and steal boxes of cereal. But I’d need milk. How would I keep the milk from spoiling? It was the lack of refrigeration, not the lack of a good cave, that tripped me up every time. So I stayed where I was.

I stayed with my family and I stayed in school and I became a teenager with the usual teenage concerns. One day a boy said to me, “You don’t talk much, do you?”

“I guess not,” I answered, taking in what I perceived as criticism. The only thing that allowed me to be there at all, in his presence, the only thing that gave me any sort of social life was that I smoked pot. I was a hippie and I smoked pot, and hippie pot smokers hung together so I’d been let into a club. But I didn’t talk much.

“It kind of pisses me off,” the boy said.

So it was criticism.

I talk now. I’m 62 years old and I’m a novelist and I have a public life. Some days I wake up a little panicked over this. I always wanted to be a writer. When I was a child I knew that books were written by writers, but I noticed that I didn’t know anything about the writers themselves. If I ever saw a picture of a writer it was on the book jacket. So becoming a writer seemed perfect for me. I could present a book, but not be seen. Well, things changed, and here I am, a writer with a public life. It’s not bad though. It’s helped me gain some confidence, but I sure didn’t start out with it.

So these days, I look back on that child, the child I was, the child with her confidence-slate wiped clean and I look at who I am now, and I see that tender skinny child with the long, gangly legs and the soft hair on my young arms, the arms that I never raised in school when a teacher asked a question, and with which I hugged myself down in the woods, and I see myself trying to please everyone by not existing, and I feel sympathy and also a smidge of pride, because I think, damn girl, you did a lot with a little.

I wonder though, if I’d had confidence, if I’d been allowed to think even one good thought about myself, what would I be? Would I be Norman Fucking Mailer, or Nancy Peacock tenfold, or twenty-fold, or infinite-fold? Or was it the lack of confidence that helped make me who I am?

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The Conversation

This is a conversation I have had quite often:

“How do I get to do what you do?” I am asked.

“What exactly do you mean?”

How do I get a book published? How do I get paid to teach writing? How do I get likes on Facebook? How? How? How?

Where do I begin? What do I say?

I started this journey way back. Way, way back when I first started writing in fourth grade. Like most people, I had a mild flirtation with it at first. And then I got serious. And then I had an on-again-off-again relationship with it for years. And during that time there were some failures and a few successes. Oh, and during all that, I cleaned a lot of houses that did not belong to me.

“How do I get to do what you do?”

You don’t. You get to do what you do. Maybe they’ll look similar. Maybe not. I never thought I’d be teaching writing. It wasn’t part of the plan. The plan was to be a writer, not a teacher. Now I’m both. And I’m glad. I can’t imagine one without the other.

My point is that everything in my life has helped me get to where I am now, and where I am now is not at all what I imagined. I imagined I’d be a best selling author by now, that I’d own a house by now, that I’d have more books written and published by now, that I’d be a name everyone recognizes, and so on. You know the dream. Chances are you’ve had it too. You might even be looking at what you see of my life and saying to yourself, “That’s where I want to be. I want what Nancy has.”

But it’s fairly useless to look at any writer or artist with a tinge of jealousy, just as it’s useless to ask, “How do I get to where you are now?” Because you can’t. Your life might acquire some similarities. You might have some books published, you might get some of the same sort of attention that I have received. You might even receive more. But similarities are not the same as path. You have your own path. We might each have spouses, and marriages, but they are different spouses and different marriages. Having them has everything to do with the path we were on, how we met our spouses and courted them. This is true for your writing life too. My path included cleaning other people’s houses. Sometimes when I am asked, “How do I get to do what you do?” I want to put a feather duster in that person’s hand.

There is no map. You can’t get a checklist of what to do to propel yourself onto another person’s path. You have your own path, and the fact is, if you’re writing, you’re on it. You’re just not where you think you ought to be. I understand. I didn’t think I was where I ought to be either when I was chasing other people’s pubic hairs down drains. The thing is I was wrong. I was exactly where I ought to have been. I wrote a book about it.

Set your feet firmly on your path, not mine.



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The Bridge – short fiction

As if I did not have enough problems, as if my tooth were not aching a dull, constant throb, as if my jaw were not swollen, as if fever from the infection did not have me teetering on the brink of this room with its pastel furniture and beige carpet and long white buzzing suns, there is a painting hanging above the couch that seems to be only headlights in the dark. I stare at it. I cannot make sense of the colors. It’s a painting, just a painting, I tell myself, although it is blinding and I find myself squinting at it while holding the palm of my hand against my too-hot cheek.

The woman sitting on the couch beneath the painting is looking at her phone, tapping the screen, sliding her finger along it, head bent down. She texts, “I am here to get my teeth bleached.” I swear I can see this, that I know it, that the letters tap in neon across the wall, across that painting. Or maybe I can just interpret it, the Morse Code of her flying thumbs. Or perhaps I am just guessing, speculating, judging. I have been known to judge.

She does not seem to have an abscess or pain or swelling anywhere, except in her breasts. Bought and paid for, I think. This is me being judgemental again. Snarky. Old. I hate her smooth, flawless skin. I hate her flying thumbs. I hate the way she keeps glancing at me as though being in pain is some sort of personal failing. I imagine she thinks of homelessness this way too. I’m not homeless. Not anymore. I have an apartment now, but no furniture. I sleep on the floor, on the carpet. It’s blue, the color claimed by the town’s university sports team. Carolina Blue. I sleep in the southern part of heaven and have a tooth that must be pulled. Already I have missed a day of work coming here.

My jaw is hot, hot, hot. The painting. The lights move. The woman below taps her phone. The painting hurts my eyes. It is too much like the underpass on a rainy night. The reflection of headlights on dark, wet pavement. Watching the headlights slide by as the rain pattered down and the tires of the passing cars whooshed through the puddles that sprayed into the lights. “It’s pretty,” I told Rita. “If you forget you’re homeless.”

I’d taken her hand. She was five years old. She had a toothache. It hurt. We’ll take care of it tomorrow, I told her. I didn’t know how. And it didn’t happen. And she got taken away from me because I couldn’t care for her.

“I’m here to get my teeth bleached,” the woman texts again.

I swear I see it. The neon letters across the painting. I hear sirens. My skin is hot.

“I’m here to get my teeth bleached.”

This short piece of fiction was written from a prompt in my free second-Saturday class, in which I passed out pictures of paintings taken from an art book, and gave the writers the setting of a waiting room. “This art is hanging in a waiting room.”

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Dear Sir

Dear Sir, I love you, and now you are gone, and I didn’t tell you I love you before you disappeared. That’s because when you were here, I did not love you. In fact, you were always annoying to me, but I miss you now, and I think I love you, and I wonder what happened, where you went and can only imagine that you have died.

The way it happened is that one day I noticed you were gone, and realized that I had not seen you for a long time. I don’t know your name, but you, sir, were  a damn good character, and Carrboro, the town we shared, has become so gentrified. There are no good characters here anymore. They can’t afford it. And so I miss you and feel love for who you were.

I miss seeing you in Harris Teeter blowing that one note on your harmonica. It was always one note. Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm, hmmm. It never varied. You never played two notes or a different note. It was like your lips were glued to the one place on the harmonica you always carried and always blew into. You never breathed in, only out, and you walked around Harris Teeter playing your one note. It used to annoy me so badly, but today… today I miss you. Perhaps I’ve grown a little.

I miss your harmonica, but even more than that, I miss your car. It was a big green car, long with a big hood and on the hood you’d glued a huge rag doll in a crucified position, and there was a bumper sticker on the back that said, “Be Patient. God Isn’t Finished With Me Yet,” and on the top, just above the driver’s door was a bunch of bananas. The bananas were always there. They were real bananas too, and they were always fresh and yellow and they weren’t glued down. People would drive up beside you and roll down their windows and point and say, “You have bananas on your car.” And you’d nod and smile and say, “I know.”

You used to run a junk shop out at the county line. It was in an old white house. I stopped in a few times. I even sold you some things. I never bought anything. There was a lot of stuff, inside and outside, and after a time the neighbors complained about your place. They said it was an eyesore, so you lined up barrels along the roadway so they wouldn’t have to see it. They complained about that too, and finally you were forced out and they tore down your house. There’s a Walmart there now, but that’s long after a series of other businesses in a series of other brick buildings. They just couldn’t get that corner right. I wonder if you cursed them.

I think now you knew more that I ever gave you credit for and I’m sorry. If I knew where your grave is, I’d go there, clear the weeds of it, maybe put a jar of wildflowers on it, maybe a harmonica.

I want you to know that I think you wouldn’t annoy me now. I think I’d be happy to see you. I’d love to hear your one-note harmonica in the aisles of Harris Teeter. I’d be happy to see your big green car gliding through the traffic of Carrboro, people staring at the crucified rag doll. I’d love to pull up behind you at a stop light and watch the person in the car next to yours roll his window down, point, and say, “You have bananas on your car.” I’d love to watch you nod and smile and say, “I know.”

Sincerely, Nancy

Written from the prompt – Write a Letter to a Stranger

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My life, my mood, my days, my sleep – everything goes better when I have an obsession. Not the unhealthy kind. Not the does-he-love-me-why-doesn’t-he-call kind of obsession. Not the I-need-a-new-pocketbook-and-complete-wardrobe-overhaul kind of obsession. Not the I- need-to-pull-my-life-up-by-the-roots-and-start-all-over kind of obsession. The obsession I need, the one that trumps all the crazy shit in my head, the one that makes my days flow and my nights restful is the obsession of story. Especially the obsession of writing a novel.

Not just any novel. Writing a novel I am not really into makes things worse, not better. But writing a novel that is holds my interest, that send me to the discovery of facts and history through research, a novel that feels valuable to me – nothing can replace this feeling. Nothing can lift me higher or soothe me more. Plus there is the fact that a novel takes a really long time write and so, I can count on this obsession to work its magic for years.

Yes, there are bumps in the road. Yes, there are days the writing feels awkward. Yes, there are days the words seem to crash into each other and trip over each other and talk over each other, like an over-crowded party. But if I feel engaged in the story, in the characters, if I feel I’ve made a holy pact with them to get this done (and the energy of this pact must flow both ways) then I move through these days knowing that work will make it better. That the next day will probably unveil something. That whatever mistakes I have made today can be unmade tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the day I see the solutions. It’s called faith, and I don’t have it in every novel I’ve tried to write. I have had it in the ones I’ve brought to fruition though, and nothing can replace the feeling of having something that powerful in your hands.

Ten pages. Fifteen pages. Thirty-five pages is quite a milestone. One hundred pages is an amazing milestone. End of first draft. End of second draft. End of third. Fourth. Fifth. With each draft the character and story come more and more alive, and I, the author disappear. When I am finished the greatest sadness comes over me, not because I have disappeared from the pages, but because the journey is over. My friends, the characters, are done with me. I’ve served my purpose.

The next story obsession does not come so easily. I am bereft. I need to grieve. I want to write but I am cleaned out. I have nothing in me to write. There is a huge void inside me which the previous characters once occupied, and which future characters recognize as raw and bloody and not ready for them yet. That void belongs to someone gone. I have not figured out how to speed the process along. I berate myself at the end of every novel for not being “professional” enough to get back on the horse and write another book. I’ve even tried. In fact, I’ve tried many times. I suppose I could do it if doing it means putting words on a page. If sex means intercourse and not love. But I like love. And I wait for it again. And the worst part of this is that I haven’t figured out how to comfort myself while I wait. How to fill my time. The void of the missing characters is too great. A raw, gaping hole that weeps until its finished. Meanwhile I walk around and pretend to be a writer.

Written from the prompt Write About an Obsession

Posted in Completing a novel, creativity, Day by day, depression, Drafts, Energy, Exploration, failure, fiction, fun with what we do, Grief, Magic, Passion, Play, Process, Prompts, research, Starting a new work, Uncategorized, work | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment