Apr 28 2014

Write On

I still have to do it by hand. The keyboard is okay for emails or business proposals. But a post doesn’t come to me in perfunctory punches on plastic keys. There’s something about the pen in my hand, the side of my palm against the paper, connected to my wrist, my arm, my shoulder, to my body, where you’ll find my heart. If it’s going to have any guts to it, it has to start out as a hand written piece. My first drafts are always in my journal or on some scrap of paper beside my bed. The words come sometimes so fast that my hand can’t keep up and then I think I should be writing directly on the keyboard. But the instant I switch to my laptop – and I’ve tried this – the words dry up and I stare at the empty screen. Maybe it’s just habit, or maybe there’s something to the heart-to-pen circuit.
Why am I telling you this? Because I’m participating in a “blog tour” about writing, and I’ve been given four questions to answer. A bit of backstory: five years ago when my manuscript was going nowhere, I took the advice of a few friends to try my hand at blogging. A few posts later I’d fallen in love with the medium. I loved that I could publish my writing without a gatekeeper. I loved that I could design my own look, choose my typeface and select my images. I also appreciated the community of bloggers who read each other’s posts, commented on and promoted each other’s blogs and in general supported anyone who wants to join the club.

I used to spend a fair amount of time nosing around in the blogosphere, but after a couple of years it got harder to keep up. Life got busier with more work and more travel and the bulk of time I’d permitted myself to read all my favorite blogs shrank considerably. But there are a few I manage to keep up with. One of them is Magpie Musing, a quirky, intelligent blog by a woman who shares my name, my love of books and a fascination with things in a state of desuetude. The other belongs to Amanda McGee, whose writing is good enough to eat. It’s Maggie at Magpie Musing who lured me into this assignment, but it was Amanda’s post that inspired me to accept.

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How does your process work? It could be a topic I’m grappling with (again) that comes to the surface, or a comment by Short-pants or Buddy-roo that gives me an idea. Sometimes De-facto will hear me rant and respond with “that sounds like a blog post.” I’m a student of the Nathalie Goldberg school of freewriting, so I’ll write the nugget of that idea at the top of the page and let the pen go. Judgment is suspended and all words and phrases that come to mind get scribbled down, little gems both poignant and awkward, fodder to be fine-tuned and polished later. The more you get on the page, the more you have to work with, so I allow a full purge to create a first draft. If you read Annie Lamott‘s book Bird by Bird, she talks about the shitty first draft, and that’s exactly what I produce. It’s messy and wordy and occasionally embarrassing, but it’s a step beyond the daunting blank page, and for that alone it is a precious victory every time.
When the computer gets involved, the editing starts. Words are arduously rearranged, lines chopped, paragraphs deleted. I’m still too wordy. I could use a good editor to catch typos and omit needless words. Sometimes the labor goes too long and I come to a point where I just have to ship it. But only after a good night’s sleep and a fresh read in the morning. Then I hit publish.

Why do you write what you write? The reasons have morphed since I started. At first I thought I was writing to get a wider audience. When my mother subscribed, I realized I could write to tell her things about my life that were hard to convey to her in person. When she passed away this blog saved me from heartbreak by giving me a place to express my grief. I still haven’t deleted her from the subscriber list. You might read between the lines and hear me whispering to her, with pride about how the girls are growing, or exasperation about how the girls are growing.

I write for my daughters, too. Just in case twenty or thirty years from now when/if they enter the mother’s club – if they are curious – there’ll be an archive about their childhood from my point-of-view. I can’t be sure they’ll care. All I know is how many times I wish I knew what my mother had been going through when she was mothering me. I used to ask, but her responses were not particularly revealing. If my daughters ever want that depth from me, well, it’s here for the taking.

If you really, truly, want to know more about why I write, read this.

How does your work differ from others in the genre? It’s hard for me to characterize how what I do is different. What I love about the world of blogging is the wide diversity that exists; blogs with ten readers and those girls_on_rockswith thousands, each with its own voice and purpose. In that way, different is normal. Somebody once told me this was a literary blog, which I took as a huge compliment. De-facto calls it a contrarian mom blog. I’m not sure this is so distinct, but it’s the crux of what I write. Every day I experience an acute ambivalence, the duality of amazement and angst about having these creatures in my life. I try to craft each post as a short narrative that makes a point about this paradox. I want to tell stories that make you love my kids, and at the same time, make you roll your eyes along with me.

What are you working on? This writing exercise reminds me that I’m not. There’s a manuscript that’s nearly finished, but stuck on a back burner. There’s another story waiting to be told, but its words haven’t made it to the blank page. I won’t even bother to go into the excuses. I’ll just say thanks to Maggie and for the nudge – here’s her blog tour post, by the way – and see if I can’t get back to that big writing project and finish it. Maybe I could publish chapters of my manuscript on this blog. Should I?

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Like a tree, this story branches out. Each blogger invites two more to muse about their writing process, a digital chain letter that’s been going on for months. I have a long history of breaking chain letters without apology. This one I’m passing along, though I gave my invitees guiltless permission to bow out if the exercise wasn’t something for which they had time or interest. To my surprise, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be to find two bloggers happy to play along.
Lori, of Groovy Green Living, is someone I knew in real life before we linked on the internet. She’s a ferocious advocate for our planet, and for our health in an increasingly toxic world. Her blog not only inspires you to act, choose and shop in a responsibly green way, it tells you, in very practical terms, how.

Kristen at Birthing Beautiful Ideas describes herself as a feminist mother, philosophical doula and snarky storyteller. She has great post titles, too. One of my favs: The Pre-labor Cervix is not a Magic 8 Ball.

I encourage you to take a look at their blogs, especially next Monday to acknowledge them for carrying on the baton for this meme. And if you’re still curious about bloggers and how they write, then visit this Twitter hashtag: #mywritingprocess

Writing my blog has been a source of tremendous pleasure. It’s helped me grow as a writer, a mother and a woman. But it wouldn’t be the same if there weren’t any readers. So let me finish my writing about writing by thanking those of you who click through and read Maternal Dementia, whether it’s every post or just once in a while. There’s so much to read on the web. Your time is precious. I thank you for spending it here on my blog with Short-pants, Buddy-roo, De-facto and me.

(Photo credits: Spilt Ink is artwork by Dan Walker. The tree in the last image was painted by Blair Bradshaw.)

Apr 19 2014

Time and Time Again

They warned me. The ubiquitous voices of been-there-already parents, well-meaning strangers and card-carrying members of the cliché club. It all goes by so fast. They were referring to my children’s childhood, and how quickly it time_flieswould pass. When I was knee-deep in diapers and breast pumps, unable to find even a few minutes to brush my teeth, trying to coordinate conference calls with nap time, I’d just turn the other way and roll my eyes. Deep down I knew that someday I’d agree with them, but it didn’t make me any more receptive to their unsolicited commentary.

Now time screams by and each day the hands spin faster and faster around the clock. Those two tow-headed toddlers are long and lean. Short-pants is nearly as tall as I am. Buddy-roo is not far behind her in height. They can dress and feed themselves. They manage abstract concepts and demonstrate emotional intelligence. They are becoming interesting. Now that the extreme parenting required in those early days is – thankfully – behind me, I find myself observing my children with awe and amusement. I have to throw out an occasional bone: a reminder to set the table, help out with a complex homework question or to lob in some carefully-cloaked advice. I watch them knowing I will soon be irrelevant. They are sprinting toward a horizon that’s not mine to reach.

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I don’t know why I thought that moving to a new city would give me more time. I imagined an uncluttered life, a tabula rasa, starting fresh without obligations that steal time. I must have been remembering my first year in Paris, when I’d go off on a Sunday morning and explore a different arrondissement block by block just for the sake of wandering, returning home as the sun set, nourished by the long quiet hours. I had only a few friends in the city, and fewer invitations to meet up with them. That was the mid-90s, and although I had an email address – a Compuserve number – the volume of messages in my inbox was a small fraction of what calls for a response today. The public internet existed, too, but it was nascent in its ability to eat up blocks of our time. That first year, though lonely, allowed me to stop and think about who and what I wanted to be and do. I foolishly incorporated that memory into my expectations of the move to Barcelona.

Laugh at me now. Living in a new place, everything takes longer. The errands that used to be on the way to somewhere aren’t quite as efficient. Getting around isn’t second nature. I’m operating in a different language. Spanish classes twice a week are helping with that, but these take up time, too. A move with kids adds another dimension of things to monitor and manage. I’m running faster than ever, once again on a hamster wheel but this time one of my own inadvertent design. The mantra that I hate to repeat comes too often to my lips: There’s never enough time.

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Last week I spent time in Italy at the CREA conference, where I facilitated a workshop about time and creativity. It was a reprise of a 3-day workshop I’d done before, only this year, paradoxically, it was scheduled as a one-day program. The workshop wasn’t about time management, but rather an opportunity to reflect on the relationship with time and how we view it and use it. Not that I’m any kind of expert on this subject, but I took on the assignment because it’s one I need to explore over and over again. I wrote time_is_nowabout this before, when I chronicled the previous workshop, but it’s still true: we teach what we most need to learn.

Think of all the language around time: how we spend time, save time, waste time and kill time. We use time up, we take time out. Time is money, time waits for no thing and for no one. Time flies. We’re running out of time. We often talk about time in terms of Chronos, its passage in hours, days and years, counted and quantified. Contrast that with Kairos, the propitious moment of time, the opportune moment. This is the Carpe Diem approach, making the best of the now. These two notions of time dance together through our lives. While we can’t escape Chronos, we can be more deliberate about Kairos. All it takes, really, is paying attention to what’s happening right now. I had a lot of Kairos moments on the Camino, because I slowed down and paid attention. The only thing that stops me from doing that now is me. Sometimes I’m so busy keeping up, I forget to savor the little moments that, when pieced together later, are what add up to a lifetime of time well spent.

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There are times when she is shy, painfully uncomfortable talking out loud in front of people. At the conference I invited Short-pants to attend a small group session with me, one where you reflect on the events of the day. She was eager to come and participate. When it was her turn to talk, though, she struggled to find the words, and even had a hard time looking up at the others in the small circle of chairs. I’m not troubled by this, she’s gregarious enough at home with family and in the company of close friends. It’s that I’m always surprised by her timing: it’s never quite logical, when she goes all shy, and when she steps up to take the stage.

On the last night of the CREA conference, a musical ensemble called Cluster performed an entertaining and interactive a cappella concert. After singing several songs and medleys, demonstrating their capacity for harmonizing and blending their voices to sound like musical instruments, they asked for three volunteers from the audience. Short-pants shot her hand up in the air, without even knowing what she was volunteering to do. Once on stage, she learned that she would conduct the singers, and that in her hands was the opportunity to go faster or slower, louder or softer. She was the youngest of the volunteer conductors, but probably the most deliberate, waving one hand to lead the singers through a version of The Beatles’ Let it Be with fierce concentration. she_conducts The audience applauded her wildly, for her courage more than her conducting prowess, and she won the opportunity to conduct a second time, as part of a competition, with the winner of another trio of volunteers. Once again she took the stage, this time the song was O Sole Mio, which she’d never heard before, but she managed to wave both arms this time and finish to more wild applause, enough to make her the victor once again. She stood tall and proud on the stage, beaming broadly, surveying the audience that had crowned her, taking in the moment fully.

From the moment she ran up to the stage until she came back to hug me when it was all over, time stopped. I didn’t think about what we’d been doing before, I didn’t wonder about what would happen after. I stood in the back of a big round room, my eyes riveted on her, my hands cupped over my mouth, feeling nervous and surprised and delighted all at once. She grabbed that moment for herself and in turn gave me one, too. That and a little elbow nudge in the side about our old friend time. It’s too easy to focus on how fast time goes by, watching your children grow up. Better just to pay attention, while it’s all happening, which is when they remind you how to seize the day.