Monday, January 18, 2016

I have no idea what I'm doing

"That if enough people in a silent room are drinking coffee it is possible to make out the sound of steam coming off the coffee. That sometimes human beings have to just sit in one place and, like, hurt. That you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do. That there is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness. That it is possible to fall asleep during an anxiety attack."

- David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Each of these sentences on their own are rather amazing, aren't they? And then to think of them together. That acute awareness of living.

“Flowers lead to books, which lead to thinking and not thinking and then more flowers and music, music. Then many more flowers and many more books.”
- Maira Kalman

Do you know Maira Kalman's work? If not, I urge you to check out all her books at your local library and / or bookstore. I started with The Principles of Uncertainty and And the Pursuit of Happiness and just recently read her book Beloved Dog (great for dog lovers). The illustrations are fabulous and the work somehow just takes you right out of yourself, and you'll find yourself smiling away while reading.

Flowers and then books and music and also tea, of course.

So, last week's flowers are now dried and continue to dry out. It's been a gray week, difficult to find the sun, or, I've been busy or out when there has been a sunny interval. Also, I've been tired (which means I see things through slightly bleary eyes) because I've been adjusting to a new writing schedule.

"One just writes as best one can. The vow is simple, although it may have taken years to recognize: to work in one's time. Time and history are the situation and ground: work is the medium and the response. The ins and outs of the self are just part of the design." 

- Rachel Blau Duplessis, The Blue Studio

I've been jotting notes in a notebook and thinking about what I want to write next for some time. Since Rumi and the Red Handbag I've written a couple of books, actually. Some of you have read Asking, my book of poem-essays, etc. And from there I went on to write another similar book in more or less the same form, though I think the pieces verge more toward essays. I'm waiting to hear back from my publisher on that one. Maybe this sounds like I'm prolific but because this word is often used disparagingly, I prefer to think of myself as hard working.

For the last couple of weeks I've been getting up at 5:30 (the goal is really 5:00 am) and making my way to my desk. The coffee needs to brew, the dog needs to be fed. And yes, Rob usually gets up and heads to his studio in the basement, too, which makes this all much easier.

I don't love getting up quite this early, but it's the only way I've found that works. To start writing when I'm half asleep, when the dreams are still hanging on. It's dark, especially now in January, and this seems to match the way one writes at the beginning of something new...into the murk and darkness, feeling one's way forward.

Some mornings, I'll just sit there for an hour, writing a word or two. Changing this or that. Other mornings, a page. Once in a while, two. Sometimes, I'll have written something in my notebook, which I can transcribe, embellish, shape. Or, I look at what's in my notebook, and cross it off.

This is part of the process. The process is waiting. Another part is reading books that inspire, reading books for research. Watching movies. Looking out the window in the afternoon and jotting things in my notebook. Sometimes stopping the car, pulling over, and writing a note on my phone. (Which I might forget about until months later and wonder what the heck it means).

I'm not an expert on how to write anything. I've written quite a few books, yes, and every one of them is different from the others. I suppose this is really the case for most writers.

This getting up in the morning thing. Certainly not for everyone. I take naps when I can. If I'm going to be working the evening shift at the library, I nap beforehand or I'd never make it through. And usually, I can do this for four or five months, and then I have to take a break from it for a bit. It means also, that I go to bed early, and it's difficult to entice me out in the evening.

"One just writes as best one can," says Rachel Blau Duplessis. And I've taken her book and moved it to my book caddy.

Last week I cleared the top of my desk. I took all the books out of the caddy that were in it, and foraged around my study for the books I most need to write this new thing. Of course, this will change through time. Some of the ones I have now are by Marilynne Robinson, Woolf, Duras, Marquez, Lispector. A book I haven't fully absorbed, Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick. Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be. Meg Wollitzer's The Interestings.

I repeat, I have no idea what I'm doing.

Here's a funny thing though. This year, in May, I turn 50. Our daughter will turn 18 a couple of months later. After that, I imagine, many things will be changing. I'm not a big person for numbers and for birthdays and for freaking out about age. But this is going to be a big year whether I want it to be or not. And so it seems right to be starting a new novel right now at the beginning of it all. I have hopes for it. Because if you don't have hope for the thing you're about to spend the next three or four or five years on, you're crazy. I want to put everything I know into this baby, everything I am. 

I need to hurry up with it, and I need to slow it all down. 

It might be a bust, but I'm going to try.

That's where I am right now.

Meanwhile, enough about me.

Meanwhile, it's the season for magpies. For the madness of snowflakes.

The Lunatic

by Charles Simic

The same snowflake
kept falling out of the gray sky
All afternoon,
Falling and falling
And picking itself up
Off the ground,
To fall again,
But now more surreptitiously,
More carefully
As night strolled over
To see what's up.

- from The Lunatic by Charles Simic

Once December Comes

by Charles Simic

There's another kind of sky,
Another kind of light
Over the wintry fields,
Some other kind of darkness
Following in its footsteps,
eager to seek our company
In these frostbitten little homes,
Standing bravely
With no dog in sight.

Well, and then there's January, with it's own particular light.

Both of the Simic poems are from his book The Lunatic, which is really splendid. I took it, and the new Joy Harjo book out of the library. I was at our downtown branch for a meeting one day, and foraged through the poetry section there. (That's something you don't do so much when you work at a library, oddly, at least not at your own branch. Or it's not the same anyway).

One day last week there was such a frosty frost, that even the power poles in the utility corridor had frost on them. Don't see that often.

The light was such that the landscape took on some otherworldly glow.

A bit of a lunar landscape...

So. One last poem to end on. I'm still making my way through the Harjo book, with the amazing title: Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. From what I can tell so far: this book is freaking brilliant. This is a voice we need to listen to right now. The book is a beautiful example of what poetry can be. I'll be reading and re-reading it. (Will probably have to buy it once the book is returned to the library....).

A review of the book in the New York Journal of Books.

A Sacred Connection to the Sun on NPR.

Praise the Rain

by Joy Harjo

Praise the rain, the seagull dive
the curl of plant, the raven talk -
Praise the hurt, the house slack
The stand of trees, the dignity -
Praise the dark, the moon cradle
The sky fall, the bear sleep -
Praise the mist, the warrior name
the earth eclipse, the fired leap -
Praise the backwards, upward sky
The baby cry, the spirit food -
Praise canoe, the fish rush
The hole for frog, the upside-down -
Praise the day, the cloud cup
The mind flat, forget it all -

Praise crazy. Praise sad.
Praise the path on which we're led.
Praise the roads on earth and water.
Praise the eater and the eaten.
Praise beginnings; praise the end.
Praise the song and praise the singer.

Praise the rain; it brings more rain.
Praise the rain; it brings more rain.


  1. I keep staring at the final photo. The leaning frosty trees. The orangey light. You know what you are doing and it's beautiful.

  2. This: "To start writing when I'm half asleep, when the dreams are still hanging on." I so love that line. Beautiful post.

  3. a really lovely post Shawna.
    I'm still having a very difficult time dealing with the death of our two dogs this year. I think I shall ask our library to bring in Maira Kalman's _Beloved Dog_ to see if there is some balm within it's pages.
    I'm so pleased for you that you're finding your morning routine beneficial with your writing. I do agree that writing should be a routine, and hard work.

  4. oh, Shawna, i cannot tell you how much i love your blog, your writing, your photography, the books you write and the books of others that you lead me to...
    you have made me eager for mondays.

  5. Marvelous post, as always. I like Charles Simic poems very much. (5 AM is my best time...meditation, lectio, then write, at least a line.)

  6. "into the murk and darkness"

    This reminds me of a sentence I found in my journal this morning. I think I was quoting Natalie Goldberg and I may have embellished it: "I want to write so far into the uncontrolled darkness that I don't know whether I'm a word or a page or a period at the end of a sentence."

    Thank you for sharing your process, and your amazing photos.

  7. Beautiful photo and words. Endlessly inspiring. Thank you for sharing!

  8. In this very cold season, here I find added warmth and contemplation. Thank you.

  9. Such an interesting process and commitment this whole writing thing is, I find it fascinating. I guess I have to ask, does anyone really know what they're doing? Thank you, as always, for these wonderful poems. I've started copying many of them down here on my Mac notepad. Loving your utility corridor photos, theres something about the white snow in combination with that beautiful pale blue sky.

    1. So true! It really is all trial and error, life is, isn't it?

  10. So many lovely comments - thank you everyone!


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