Forging ahead or just forging?

Nadia ComaneciDuring a gymnastics workout when I was thirteen years old, my coach sent me away from the larger group on the uneven bars to practice on my own on the balance beam. I was trying to perfect my side aerial (cartwheel with no hands), by starting out on the less-terrifying floor beam (before making my way to the totally terrifying high beam).

On the floor beam, I attempted aerial after aerial but was completely unable to stay on the beam after the landing. I’d get my left foot on solid, then my right foot behind the left, just as solid. But as I lifted my chest up, arms over my head, I would lose my balance in this very sudden, jerky way, and fall off. It was such an irregular pattern of movement you’d think it could not possibly repeat itself. But each time, after each landing, my body would do the same motion, and I’d fall off on the same side of the beam every time. Watching it must have been like rewinding a video and hitting play, rewinding again, hitting play. Same thing with no variation.

I did this until my left leg was weak, until my face was red with frustration, until I was flipping in mid-air with tears streaming down my face. I was appalled with myself and couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. My solution was to forge ahead, to not stop, to go and go. I was determined.

During this whole episode which lasted about 40 minutes, my coach would yell over now and again, telling me to “go work on something else,” “go to floor, work on your standing back flip,” “get some water, practice your leaps.” I ignored him. I pretended I couldn’t hear him. He finally walked over, took me by the forearm, and led me to the water fountain, then sat me down. “You need to learn when to take a break,” he said, looking right into my eyes. “Now go practice your leaps. You can come back to beam after that.”

I am now forty-two years old and on day #9 of my writing residency. It was only yesterday, after toiling away at a chapter in my memoir that I’ve been toiling away at for almost an entire week, that this memory surfaced. As I organize and reorganize, copy and paste, move this paragraph there and that one to the end, I know that I’m not getting anywhere. Yet I want to keep forging ahead (which really means I just want to keep forging, there’s no “ahead” about it), to go and go until I have devolved into a mess behind a desk (or maybe curled up under the desk).

I have not yet devolved, but I have been nursing a ball of anxiety in my stomach every time I sit down at the computer and open the file. Another resident and new friend here at VCCA calls it “the sick place.” Here here.

As counter-intuitive as it feels, I know I need to take my coach’s decades-old advice. I need to take a break. Get a drink of water. Go practice my leaps. If I’m not careful, I could spend my whole month just moving paragraphs around, never finding a stance solid enough to stay on the beam, so to speak.

Incidentally, when I returned to the balance beam back in 1985 and tried my aerial again, I stuck it the very first time. I glanced over at my coach who was setting up mats for our end-of-work-out tumbling passes to see if he’d caught it. He smiled at me and gave me a thumbs-up. I half-smiled. Only half because I was embarrassed he’d been right. Again.

I don’t have a coach anymore, but I have creative friends and mentors who I talk to in times of distress (and success). And they have to remind me that we can get into unproductive grooves that are impossible to get out of except by simply walking away, distracting ourselves with something else, returning to the task at hand only after we’ve had some time to find ourselves again. Do what feels good, they tell me. Enjoy the views of the landscape where you are. Read and rest and rejuvenate. Whatever I produce, they remind me, however many pages this month turns out, will be just fine.

Pictured above is, of course, the Romanian legend, Nadia Comaneci.

The Visitation

VCCA_studio

This is my second full day at the Virginia Center of Creative Arts. I’m here, ostensibly, to work on my memoir. While I’ve napped, read, ordered facial cleanser online, talked to the cows that block the colony’s long driveway, as well as chatted with some of the other writers and artists who are here, I haven’t yet dug into the work. Instead, I’ve spent most of my time obsessing…about spiders. Wolf spiders specifically. (I was going to include a pic of one, but I couldn’t bear it.)

A whole village of them infiltrated my studio my first night here. I’m sure there’s some metaphor I could drum up about this potentially auspicious event, this arachnid visitation, but mostly the spiders are big and hairy and scary, and while Maintenance Mike seems to have solved the issue, after sundown I scan the area by the utility closet door every two minutes or so. They’d first entered individually, then in couples, then three at a time. Every time I turned around, more spiders. Mike told me that it’s the ones that aren’t hairy that I have to watch out for. I think he said this in an attempt to make me feel better, but it just got me thinking about other, more dangerous spiders that might be lurking in the closet.

It’s true that I’m scared of spiders. I’m also scared of what I’ve been given this month of November: time and space and quiet, three meals a day, peaceful views, and the company of other writers and artists with whom, ideally, I get to talk about art and books and the creative process. It’s easier to fixate on spiders than to feel the sometimes-scary emptiness of the days spread ahead of me. I know, I know: It’s heaven, it’s amazing, it’s a gift. All true. But for someone who hasn’t yet mastered the art of relaxation, or time management, or good old-fashioned routine, the gift feels daunting. The gift is a big wolf spider. (There’s the metaphor!) The gift is this enormous desk I have for the month. The trick is that in order for this whole gift thing to work in my favor I have to sit at it even when I don’t want to, even when what I’d sometimes rather do is pick up my heavy, black Dansko clog and smash it.

Staying the Course: When Your Creative Project Isn’t at All What You Thought

When I started writing my book in earnest many months ago, I thought: Fun. Exciting. No problem. I’ll be writing about my own life. How hard could it be? I’ve written about it before. A lot.

I assumed (presumed? hoped?) the book would evolve smoothly, that if I did what I tell my students to do, if I just wrote, if I put words and more words on the page, the through-line would appear as inevitably as the sunrise; the book’s structure would reveal itself—almost magically, with little or no effort. The book would become its own gorgeous, self-sufficient animal—my only job would be to guide it along, harness it as needed.

Of course saying all this to you now, I hear it: It’s ridiculous.

I’d guess that most people who embark on a creative endeavor have some version of this experience. You think you’ve actually begun to write/paint/create whatever the “it” is. And then you realize you are really just beginning the part that comes before the beginning.

My “book” has become an animal to be sure—less powerful grizzly bear with a wild and shimmering coat, more ailing octopus, tentacles intact but its massive mantel slowly caving in on itself.

It turns out not to be an easy thing to back-track through a life—its whys and what fors—the rocky moments and the even rockier ones. To make sense of it all. For the material to produce something revelatory, for me, the writer.

One reason why beginning students (and more experienced ones, apparently, such as the one writing this blog post) can get discouraged quickly is that once the obstacle of “getting started” is overcome, a whole new set of issues can come to the fore: self-doubt, for example. Fear of rejection. Fear of being really bad at it.

I used to think about creative projects the same way I thought about life: It’ll just…happen. I won’t actually have to be there when it happens. I will be someone else…I’ll be that brilliant writer person who knows what she’s doing.

I know a little more than I used to, which means, mostly, that I know how much I don’t know.

Now that I’m over the shock of having a floppy, slippery invertebrate on my desk rather than a strong, fierce mammal of a book, I’m in a better position than I was six months ago lounging in the comfort of my naivete.

I’m not hopeful anymore. I’m awake.

Hopeful is precarious, and relatively easier (cross your fingers, hold your breath, and hope for the best).

Awake is a state you can’t argue with, and more difficult.

On the other hand, to use a scale that dips and rises between “easy” and “difficult,” is to use the wrong kind of scale, the wrong units of measure. It’s less about measuring, more about staying the course, being a grown-up, becoming brave enough to go within and let go of where you’re going. You have to have chops.

This isn’t news. And it doesn’t just apply to writing projects. Being hard on one’s self, creating under the pall cast by perfectionism, is, in some ways, to lack courage, it’s to dig one’s heels in and resist moving forward into open waters where what you make can turn out to be bad, or mediocre, or really, really good.

If I already knew what I needed to say in my book, if I had clear direction, I wouldn’t struggle as much, wouldn’t have anxiety, or doubt myself  or my abilities or my point.

But I also wouldn’t bother.

My book is an octopus. It has no spine for narrative muscles to wrap themselves around. Yet. The octopus, according to Wikipedia, is “the most intelligent and behaviorally flexible of all invertebrates.”

So I will do as I say: I will put words and more words on the page. I will stay the course. I will cultivate chops. I will undig my heels and float into open water. The book will become its own gorgeous, self-sufficient animal—with a spine.

Or it will become the healthiest, most beautiful octopus ever.

Note to Self: Do Not Ignore the Spark

I’m inspired this morning by reading writer Wendy Rawlings’ new blog, The Agnosticator. Her posts are personal, heartfelt, brief, and make me want to write. Lately, when I feel that spark, I see it out of the corner of my eye and tell myself—sinfully—that I’ll respond later. But it’s called a spark because it’s quick and if it occurs at the right place at the right time, a whole house could go up in flames. If a piece of writing is a house, and fire is what we’re hoping for, I better stop turning away.

Circa 1984

In today’s post, Wendy writes about her early attempts at writing, one of which when she was twelve. When I was twelve, I was doing many things at once: discovering the benefits and defecits of combining THC with Bartyls & James wine coolers, attempting (fruitlessly it turns out) to maintain the possibility of becoming if not an olympic gymnast at least one with a scholarship at an NCAA school, and I was making early attempts at writing—I kept a journal over which I cried often.

In my head, and my headphones, David Bowie (the David Bowie who sang “Rebel, Rebel,” and “Changes” not so much the one who sang “Let’s Dance”) is the only one who truly understood me.

I am no longer a gymnast, pot and alcohol have fallen away, but writing (as well as Bowie) remain. I think my writing is better than it was when I was twelve. I don’t cry over my journal as often as I did then, and I’m glad to be forty instead of twelve. But the spark…the spark needs my utmost attention.

A List for You

I thought this was pretty good, from grub daily (sent, well, daily, from Grub Street, a nonprofit writing center in Boston, MA).

I don’t read all of GS’s missives, but it’s hard to pass up a good list:
10 Hard Truths about Writing by novelist Lauren B. Davis.

Maybe I should try to come up with the 10 Easy Truths, or 10 Pieces of Good News Pertaining to Being a Writer, just for the sake of balance.

She *is* right–for the most part.