Watch yourself

My sister-in-law Betsy, an amazing potter, left for a pottery workshop a few days ago. Before going, she told me she especially looked forward to the lack of distractions there. She said that at home she rarely makes it to her studio before 1:00 pm. Once there, she puts off leaving even to go to the bathroom for fear of being sucked in again by her telephone, her emails, her dogs.

Lots of us get sidetracked from what we most want to do. Years ago, I took many painting and drawing classes from many teachers. When I’d enter the classroom for the first session, the easels would butt against one another – a throng of easels, a multitude of students. The third session would be roomier. Near the end of the semester, plenty of space, just five or six remaining students.

Sometimes I numbered among the missing. I wasn’t lucky with art teachers. I found only one who really suited me, and, after two years, she moved away. She was a great teacher, but even her classes lost students.

Eventually I discovered that I’m a writer. I took a lot of writing classes, too, and was luckier with my teachers. In these classes, attendance also shrank.

Some people won’t even start a class. They eternally intend to write or paint or take singing lessons but don’t, for one temporary reason after another. I think it’s really fear that gets in the way. They can’t bring themselves to enter art’s scary gladiatorial arena, where one’s deepest self lurks behind every door.

I don’t believe in a collective unconscious or an ocean of creativity that we all share. I have my ocean, and you have yours, and we swim alone. Or maybe a cloud would a better metaphor, because when I write I feel like I’m shaping wisps of fog, and I have no idea what I’m doing or how, and sometimes I succeed, and wow! that is fabulous, and sometimes nothing happens.

If only we were born clutching a golden key that fit a tiny brass keyhole behind our left ear, and we could just insert the key, turn, and wind up our artistry.

Here’s a poem I wrote last winter about my writing process:

How I Write a Book Very Slowly

Type a sentence. Check Wikipedia
for the history of backgammon.
Look up the meaning of dewlap.
Realize I need to fix something
near the beginning. Find the spot.
Type in the revision, which comes
quickly. It’s much easier to write
back there in Chapter One, where
I know what’s going on. My email pings!
Expedia wants me to fly to Belize.
Delete Expedia’s message. Return
to the latest moment in my manuscript.
Reread the last three paragraphs.
Edit them, even though I suspect
I will delete the entire episode.
Write an awkward sentence. Try it seven
ways until it is no longer awkward.
Wish I’d slept better last night. Wish
I knew who my culprit is going to be.
Put my head down on my desk. Lift my head.
Walk to the window. Stare out at the snow.
Wonder if the hydrangea will flower again.
Return to my desk. Write four words.

You may not be like me. You may write steadily every day from 5:00 am till 3:00 pm. Or you may have a daily page count that you always achieve, because otherwise you have to migrate to tundra inhabited only by caribou. You are a miracle.

Not me. I’m always fumbling. I like to observe myself in action and inaction, because I’m interested in the mystery and I do get more done when I’m self-aware.

So that’s the prompt. Just watch yourself for a week or a month. Don’t change anything. Make no judgments.

If you’re a start-and-stop writer like I am, see what gets you started and what gives you permission to stop. Or maybe you charge ahead, but you can’t stand to look at what you’ve written. Or you rewrite every sentence so many times that you can’t move forward because you keep going back. Or you need a deadline to shove you along, and then your pent-up inventiveness pours out.

Observe yourself as if you were a wild creature in its natural habitat. Marvel at yourself. Have fun. If you write anything, save it.

Along with everything else, I hope I’ve gotten you curious about Betsy’s pottery. Here’s a link to her website:

  1. I adored the poem because it's so true. As an aspiring author myself, I am often distracted by the subtle evilness lurking in Wikipedia articles. And I have to say thank you for starting a blog. It's lovely to have a peek inside your writing process and it gives us wannabes hope that its okay, even the pros get stuck sometimes and have the same issues as us!

  2. Gail, it is pure fear that keeps me from getting to the page–fear of writing something bad. But even the days when my prose stinks, I am happier because I put words on a page.

  3. Thank you for this lovely and inspirational post! I particularly like the bit about watching yourself and detecting what it is that gets you started. I have only just begun to realize how much of writing is about understanding one's own process (i.e. when being stuck is just inertia/laziness/fear and when it's my subconscious trying to tell me I am doing something stupid).

    Also, thank you for starting this blog! ELLA ENCHANTED is one of my favorites — in fact it was one of the books that converted me to being a fan of first person POV (which I hated as a kid), and thus is in a way responsible for my own first book. All my third person attempts were failures due to cardboard characters, but when I finally tried first the character just popped out of my brain, and that was the one that finally sold. So, again, thank you!

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