O is for Old? Nah. O is for being Open to Options

OLet’s face it, I’m old enough to be the mother of most of my classmates. Some days it’s more obvious than others. Like last week, in Crisis, Trauma, and Disaster Mental Health Counseling class, we were discussing the September 11 terror attacks, and I realized that everyone in class except for me and the instructor was approximately eight years old in 2001. Eight. I was 38.

I’m even old enough to be the mother of some of my instructors if I’d gotten started on the kid thing in my late teens. But still. In many ways, age does not matter. And in fact, I’m often envious of the folks who get to start out in this career so young. How marvelous that they know what they want to do in their mid-20s.

And then, I remember that I too knew exactly what I wanted to do in my mid-20s. I wanted to be a writer, so I got a Master’s Degree in English. I had some classmates then who were in their mid-40s and older. I envied them because they actually had life experience to write about. I hadn’t gotten far enough to realize what I was doing would eventually count as life experience. I mean, who’s to say if I’d become a counselor at 25 I wouldn’t now be returning to school to get my MFA in creative writing?

We can only be where we are at any given time. We can’t know what our unchosen life would have been, where the road not takenfork-in-the-road1 might have led us. As Cheryl Strayed wrote in Tiny Beautiful Things, “I’ll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”

We can’t spend our lives second-guessing our decisions. We decide what we decide when we decide it. There’s no going back, no do overs. Some people make better (and isn’t that a subjective term?) choices. Some are born into more privileged circumstances, and some people just get fucking lucky. Even if we plan, and listen to our parents, and invest properly and go to the right schools, there is no guarantee life will pan out according to plan.

All we can do is be open to the moment and what it presents, weigh our options, and follow our passions.




Writing, Always with the Writing

A week ago Sunday I returned from a lovely few days of basking in writerly goodness—a writing retreat to Lummi Island, two events featuring Cheryl Strayed in the ‘ham, and then four days at AWP in Seattle. Coming down over the past week has been a gentle process. I’ve been motivated to work. This blog a day thing is keeping me writing. The daily haikus, too. I’m also reading a lot about writing. I finished Theo Pauline Nestor’s Writing is My Drink—wonderful book, motivating, inspiring. I just bought Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing. I had the privilege of hearing her read a bit from it at AWP. Can’t wait to read it.

Currently I’m reading  Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. The first edition of this book came out in 2001 and it’s currently in it’s 13th printing, so it’s done quite well for a slim volume on art.

I noticed on the end cap on the Memoir section at Village Books the other day—I’m always hovering around the Memoir section, hoping something will happen (irrational, I’m aware)—and there it was, speaking to me as so many of the books do. I passed it by twice before I finally gave in and bought it.

I’m not quite half way through as I type this—turns out it is one of those books best savored over a couple of weeks rather than inhaled overnight. Every night I pick it up and read a few pages. I toss it in my book bag as well and take it with me in case I have time to read something other than my iPhone during the day.

Here’s the first line from the first chapter:  “Making art is difficult.” I’m hooked. Go on. The book seeks to answer, I think, these questions:  If art is so damn hard, how does it even get done at all? What are the obstacles that artists must overcome to create?

I only have to get to page four to find this nugget:  “Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap that inevitably exists between what you intended to do and what you did.” Isn’t that the truth? How different is that paragraph I just wrote from the one that I thought I was going to write five minutes ago? The paragraph in my head practically danced off the page it was so lively, but now there’s this big brown poop pile of words that I actually typed and it bears absolutely no resemblance to what I intended to type. Why is that?

Bayles and Orland would argue that we need to type out many, many ugly piles of mediocre art in order to get to the one golden paragraph, the golden paragraph that shines the proverbial light in the inevitable darkness. Our job, the authors so helpfully point out, is to learn from our work. They say that “the function of the overwhelming majority of [our] artwork is to simply teach [us] how to make the small fraction of [our] artwork that soars.” We learn to work by doing our work.

Everyone has said this in every writing book I’ve read: Anne Lamott, Stephen King, Theo Nestor, Natalie Goldberg, Dani Shapiro are who pop into my  head at the moment. . . we have to put our butts in the chairs, we have to churn out shitty first drafts, we have to live in The Cave. We have to do the work. Cheryl Strayed said it last week when she was in town for Whatcom Reads. Multiple panelists at AWP said it last week. The book is not going to write itself, the painting won’t paint itself.

They also stress the importance of audience. Most people quit producing art when they lose their audience. For many folks, this time comes immediately after finishing school because our audience is suddenly gone. No more teachers, classmates, peers, student showings. It all vanishes and no one has taught us how to find our audience.

The authors make two recommendations. First, make friends with others who make art and share your work. Second, start to think less about showing your work in, say, MoMa, and more about showing it to those friends who make are.

I’m not sure what my point is here except to say that for me, there are two realities about writing—at least for me. The first is that no matter how much I think about writing something, nothing happens until I start actually writing. The second thing is that community is good. A writing community—being among so many writers, so many people with the same purpose, last week awakened the sleeping lazy writer in me. If all these people can write books, so can I. Because they are here to talk about it—they are here to help, to light the way, to pat me on the back, and to just sit across the table from me behind another laptop, working with me.