Saturday, April 30, 2011

Phoebe Feeds Fallow Fantasy

I'm writing this post from a small cabin on Lake Bob Shiloh near Pittsburgh, TX. I drove 5.5 hours to get here and in a little while I'll give a one-hour talk about Truth in Writing. Then I'll get in the car and drive 5.5 hours home. I'm only getting a small honorarium for this, a sum that is less than the amount I can write off on my taxes for the mileage I'm accumulating.

Initially, as I realized this engagement was really going to occur-- (like many people, I say "yes" to far-off invitations in part because they are so way down the road my brain seems to think I won't ever really have to show up)-- I was feeling some regret. Driving 600 miles roundtrip to speak to a small group for sixty minutes does seem wasteful on some levels-- time, money, petroleum. But once I got outside Austin city limits, I remembered the good parts of these trips, and they are plentiful. To wit:

1) I love driving long distances solo. I think this amuses some of my family members, who like to point out that, though we never cared for each other, my father and I share a number of traits. I don't like agreeing with this assessment, but there's no disputing that we both have/had a lifelong passion for the ocean and pop music and he both have/had famous grudge-holding and long distance driving skills. He was a truck driver and I have been a road tripper for 25 years now. Being in the car alone is a bit like being on an airplane. You are forced to sit in one place, even as your body is technically being pushed forward at an alarming speed. You can think, listen to books and-- at least mentally-- get some writing done.

2) Once I get where I'm going, there is that delicious feeling of being in a room for which I am not responsible, a blank slate where I do not have the distractions of adorable dogs, knocking doors, laundry waiting to be taken in from the line, etc. I give myself permission to exhale in these unfamiliar spaces, and I've stayed in enough of them over the years to know just how to make things just so, so that I will be surrounded by all the things that most please me during solo flights: knitting and at least one book full of gorgeous knitting photos, a book to read, a book to listen to, a meditation cushion. (I do-- obviously-- bring my laptop, though I try to avoid it most of the time I've dedicated to my break.)

3) Having the alone time, and the things that bring me joy, allow me to live out -- if sometimes only for 24 hours-- the world I often fantasize about, the one in which I can dedicate myself to doing only things I truly love. Living out the fantasy has two main effects: a) It relieves the anxiety I feel at home when I am beating myself up for not making the time to do the things I am forever saying I wish I had time to do b) it confirms for me that this fantasy is more than just a fantasy-- that in fact I really do want to do these things, I really do enjoy them, they are not at all disappointing the way some things are disappointing when you actually pursue them, and thus that I really should make more time in my at-home life to dedicate to doing them. In short, I find focus to be plentiful when I am alone in a foreign location, be it a cafe in Paris or, as now, a cabin in a private Christian campground. (Aside: the conference at which I am speaking is secular-- the organizers just rented this place and/but I have to say the abundance of Christian literature and iconography here is both giving me the willies and food for thought.)

The list goes on, but you get the idea. On this particular trip what I'm most thinking about is this whole Be Still goal I'm working on. Yes, it's oxymoronic to cite Being Still as a goal, since a goal is most often something to be accomplished through hard work. But in my case, being still IS hard work. I'm not used to it and I don't imagine I ever will be. The most stillness so far has come courtesy of the car ride. And even then, my mind doesn't stop.That's okay. Because there remains some stillness from the other things that so often pull at me. Let's call this Baby Steps to Being Still.

The irony of my version of Being Still is that-- as I sort of suspected might happen-- in "allowing" myself to not be a slave to any particular writing project or deadline right now, the ideas are pouring in. Last night, I sat down and started scratching away at this idea I have for a YA novel. So far none of my fiction (four novels) has sold. And this time around I don't want to trap myself into feeling like I "have" to do this project and that I "have" to do it in X amount of time. Maybe I'll write a few more pages today. Maybe I won't. Beyond enjoying myself when I do pursue it, I am trying not to attach any dreams of selling it or even finishing it for that matter.

Which is all to say that, after writing on deadlines that have felt more desperate than not for the better part of 30 years, I am now attempting for something on par with letting a field lie fallow. Any seed of an idea that pokes through is a volunteer, nothing I am purposefully planting, tending to, fertilizing, or trying to force into existence, no harvest date circled on the calendar. So far, it's a very interesting experiment.

I get inspiration from all over the place-- from watching the dogs in their synchronized napping rituals (they never seemed worried about any deadlines besides the morning Wet Food Ritual and the Walk-Shit-Sniff Ritual), from watching the world not fall apart when I'm not writing and, lately, from all the reading in which I am indulging. Sometimes I'm so busy producing that I don't make enough time to consume. Right now the opposite is true-- I'm a little baby bird, mouth wide open, devouring books and magazines and growing stronger for my efforts as I contemplate one day flying back out into the world of goal-centric writing. Toward this end, I've been a forever fan of obituaries and last week's NYT obit of singer Phoebe Snow really grabbed me.

Phoebe Snow made a big splash in the 70's with her song Poetry Man and then, not long after, she more or less disappeared to all but her most ardent fans. This was due in part to her dislike of the business side of making music and, it seems, due in even greater part to her decision to dedicate her life to her profoundly disabled daughter, who died a few years ago. As I read Snow's condensed life story, I was thinking about how many people seem to write/sing/make movies so constantly. I count myself in this perpetual-writer group, and it's a group that has grown exponentially (and then some) thanks to the growing number of bloggers who write down every breath they take. What's the goal here? A hope for immortality? A sense that if you're not recording every moment it isn't real? Is there a fear of being forgotten? Is it about trying to make money?

I suspect all those factors play a role. So it was interesting to see how Phoebe Snow popped up on the front page of NYT online like that. One hit record, then gone from the scene for nearly 40 years, but ultimately totally remembered for her contribution, her voice, even if she only shared that voice fleetingly. Go ahead and add that to the list of examples of quality vs. quantity.

One homework assignment I gave in workshop this week is to answer the question: WHY you want to write? What's driving you? Is it a dream of fame and/or fortune? Is it an inability to not write? Is it about feeling like you have to justify your existence and prove yourself worthy of the space you occupy on the planet?

I'm reassessing my own answer to these questions right now, here in this little cabin, and during the recent past weeks and however many future weeks it takes me to come up with an answer. When I was little, I wrote for pure passion. In college I also wrote for passion, but started getting paid for it, and this got the whole words-for-money weed growing like a vine around my mind. I eked out a living, then I got book contracts and eventually mostly supported myself with my words. There were even times I made (by my standards) a good amount of money doing this And in Austin, I've accidentally (or was it?) managed to be known by a number of folks for my writing. Not precisely the Big Definition of fame and fortune, but close enough. So now what? Any reason for me to keep going? I think so. But then in which direction? I'm feeling weary of writing about relationships and politics. I've had it up to here with the corporate writing I often do to pay the bills. As this post attests, I am writing about writing now, which might be the definition of self-indulgence. Or maybe not. So I suppose in addition to answering the question WHY I want to do it, the tandem question is: And what will you write about next?

We'll see, I suppose. And with these thoughts, I shall now attempt to resume my flailing attempts at fallow, and watch to see what shoots up from the ground.

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