Taking Things Bird by Bird

Today, my daily email from Delancey Place brought me a special treat. Just as I felt the usual writer’s insecurity and doubt creep up on me, just as I began to tear apart my life goals and tiny accomplishments, Anne Lamott’s little blurb popped up in my window. In this excerpt from her book for writers, Bird by Bird, Lamott talks about the writing process with enviable ease and inspirational intimacy.

Click the link directly below for the full excerpt.

delanceyplace.com 1/22/13 – taking things bird by bird.

Bird-by-Bird

“Often when you sit down to write, what you have in mind is an autobiographical novel about your childhood, or a play about the immigrant experience, or a history of — oh, say — say women. But this is like trying to scale a glacier. It’s hard to get your footing, and your fingertips get all red and frozen and torn up. Then your mental illnesses arrive at the desk like your sickest, most secretive relatives. And they pull up chairs in a semicircle around the computer, and they try to be quiet but you know they are there with their weird coppery breath, leering at you behind your back.

What I do at this point, as the panic mounts and the jungle drums begin beating and I realize that the well has run dry and that my future is behind me and I’m going to have to get a job only I’m completely unemployable, is to stop.

First I try to breathe, because I’m either sitting there panting like a lapdog or I’m unintentionally making slow asthmatic death rattles. So I just sit there for a minute, breathing slowly, quietly. I let my mind wander. After a moment I may notice that I’m trying to decide whether or not I am too old for orthodontia and whether right now would be a good time to make a few calls, and then I start to think about learning to use makeup and how maybe I could find some boyfriend who is not a total and complete fixer-upper and then my life would be totally great and I’d be happy all the time, and then I think about all the people I should have called back before I sat down to work, and how I should probably at least check in with my agent and tell him this great idea I have and see if he thinks it’s a good idea, and see if he thinks I need orthodontia — if that is what he is actually thinking whenever we have lunch together. Then I think about someone I’m really annoyed with, or some financial problem that is driving me crazy, and decide that I must resolve this before I get down to today’s work. … But all of this only takes somewhere between one and two minutes, so I haven’t actually wasted that much time.

Still, it leaves me winded.

I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame…

…I also remember a story that I know I’ve told elsewhere but that over and over helps me to get a grip: thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin…he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” 

– Anne Lamott on writing

The Way Grandpa Talks

A new Hank Williams album became available on Spotify. Spotify, knowing my varied and even occasionally bizarre musical inclinations, recommended the album to me as soon as I signed in. A friendly little horn-shaped reminder popped up in the corner of my laptop window.

“Hay, girl, haaay. Guess what!? ‘Hank Williams: The Greatest Hits Live: Volume 1 is now available on Spotify.’ Click here to listen!”

Hank Williams

Hank Williams

(It obviously didn’t say it just like that. I heard it like that because my brain was bored.) So, I clicked and listened absentmindedly as I began the arduous process of prioritizing my writing and study agenda. Settling in for a long study session, I put American Lit. at the top of the list, Theater and Western Civ. at the bottom.

As usual, I immediately opened Facebook in the background (with the same guilty feeling I always get, and ignore, when I let social media hang around with my school work). I cracked my knuckles, set hands to keyboard and started to work.

Then, mid-clicketyclack, I heard my Grandpa’s voice in my headphones. What the…? My fingers hovered above the keys, paralyzed by the oddly familiar voice chuckling and mumbling through a few old folksy stories. Tracks 2 and 3. Hank Williams stopped singing and started talking…and to my bemusement, he sounded exactly like my Grandpa!

He drawled, teased and lilted. His words sang with intention. Hank’s warm southern voice brimmed with humor and raw emotion. His E’s sounded a little like A’s. The “g” and “y” got left off nearly ever’ word. Glory sounded like glor-rayh. The words, falling out of his mouth like errant tumbleweeds, evoked images of brown dusty roads and muddy red riverbeds.

The emphasis on certain odd phrases! The cadence was brilliant and achingly familiar. Hank, like my grandpa, was all gifted storyteller, chock-full of charismatic vigor. His country ways and fierce intelligence radiated from the comedic tale he wove of “hepn’ a fella from Alabama git his gal a telegram from ol’ Houston, Texas. That boy like ta lost ‘is min’ ovah that gal. I ain’t never seen nobody go thew what’ee been thew… I tell him, well, suh, lots I could tell’ya ’bout marriage but twern’t do ya not one licka good.”

Hank talked about money. How they had none. How they made do anyway and how it didn’t matter a’tall anyway.

I was lost in the past. My brain raced through images I associated with my 96-year-old grandfather. Swamp country and cagey mountain folk. Religion and hell-fire. Inner strength. Black-eyed peas, rutabagas and ripe tomatoes. Tractors, alligators and well-worn hands, cracked and sturdy from a life of hard, honest work. The earth.

Grandpa's Place

Grandpa’s Place

I paused…actually, I froze completely, work forgotten. I smelled Old Spice aftershave and felt the thin button-down shirts Grandpa always wore until they fell off his body. Saw and heard him grin as he reached the punch-line to some story about being a rascal in his youth or about my daddy raising hell as a young’un. The wall in front of me disappeared and in its place stood rows and rows of leafy vegetables waving in the wind on a sunshiny, steamy Florida day. My Grandpa was picking a great big grapefruit from a tree and using his dark stained pocket knife to whittle a hole in its mottled orange and yellow skin. I wriggled eagerly, knowing he’d be handing it to me next, to squeeze and suck the sweet juice out of the top. He handed to me with a smile and asked, “Did I ever tell ya ’bout when…”

It didn’t matter what he was going to tell me about. It was always wonderful and I always wanted to hear it.

(These moments are bittersweet for me. For reasons too long and too snarled to get into.)

Today, it made me think about people who long for the “good ol’ days”. Let’s call these people Wishful Wishers. And then I thought about the people who think the “good ol’ days” don’t exist. Let’s call those people Thinking Thinkers.

So, the Wishers hearken back to a day when things didn’t cost so much, people were simpler and better for it, and land was plentiful. Maybe they didn’t have a lot of money, but they certainly didn’t steal from those who maybe earned more than their fair share. They were awash in the beauty of the Good Word and true morality.

The Thinkers scoff and say that world never existed. That minorities existed in a life-sucking vacuum, defined by those who could and would define them. Life wasn’t beautiful and times were hard. Poverty and ignorance were rampant because a few white men in power liked it that way and they leached success from the uneducated, woebegone poor.

Somewhere in the memory of my grandfather and the vanishing accent he shares with Hank Williams lies a more reasonable middle ground. A place where times were simpler and food tasted better and everything was a lot less processed. A place where things were deeply unequal and women and black men could not have opinions that mattered to the world. A culture where families were larger and work was harder and good storytelling was a part of life. A culture where lies were more insipid and realities were harsher and the time for dreaming was harder to come by.

In that place lies a rich and lush part of American history. Hank’s voice reminded me of a national treasure — our grandparents that lived through a near century of constant change. They are literally living legends. Living through the Great Depression, WWII, the Red Scare, Women’s suffrage, Korea, Vietnam, Civil Rights and on and on. Wow. It defies easy comprehension. The span of time and change boggles the mind.

However…

People always want to believe that a time, a culture, a people or an era was better. That the ignorance, hate, conflict and the unpredictability of life today is a new phenomenon, brought on by a world of non-believers, whiners and sinners. The truth is more simple and sad. Sad mostly because it doesn’t help anything to know it.

The truth is that things haven’t changed all that much. War (especially religious war) is as ancient as society. Elitism, classism and other bad ‘isms are hard-wired into our communal psyche. Environmental damage and Nature’s resulting fury is a process older than Rome. The world didn’t shrink. People didn’t become more evil. We simply expanded exponentially and our very human problems expanded with us. The changes that have happened are more incremental, more material. Internally, much is as it always was.

A huge problem lies in thinking that tradition and “human nature” are good excuses not to change. Just because war is a part of life doesn’t mean we shouldn’t examine it more closely. It doesn’t mean it can never change. Just because murderers will always exist doesn’t mean we stop making laws about killing people. We must THINK (deeply) about things. We must reconfigure until our brains hurt. We must adapt. Adapt or die — this is a truth at the very core of our existence.

Our world is busting at the gut with people, the good, bad and the ugly (like always), and now, unless we pull our hopeful heads out of the past and look firmly into the future, we will continue to be disappointed with the halting, hurting humanity surrounding us. Progress is our only hope for a bright future. And, frankly? Progress is inevitable. Whether it happens now, or 50 years from now, it is going to happen.

Progress

Progress

Better to jump on the train, helping to make good decisions, informing the future with measured reality, rather than standing beside the train, bemoaning an old dream that looks a lot better in hindsight than it ever did in in the real world.

The Voltage of Life

Tonight, I read something by Ted Hughes that took my breath away. I’ve tried to discuss this so many times but always failed to scrabble the right words together. I wouldn’t do it justice, trying to interpret or decipher it. I’ve never heard it put quite so eloquently, so perfectly.

It is truth — I recognized it immediately.

“So take this new opportunity to look about and fill your lungs with that fantastic land, while it and you are still there…don’t you know about people this first and most crucial fact: every single one is, and is painfully every moment aware of it, still a child.

…It’s something people don’t discuss, because it’s something most people are aware of only as a general crisis of sense of inadequacy, or helpless dependence, or pointless loneliness, or a sense of not having a strong enough ego to meet and master inner storms that come from an unexpected angle. But not many people realise that it is, in fact, the suffering of the child inside them.

Everybody tries to protect this vulnerable two three four five six seven eight year old inside, and to acquire skills and aptitudes for dealing with the situations that threaten to overwhelm it. So everybody develops a whole armour of secondary self, the artificially constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of circumstances. And when we meet people this is what we usually meet. And if this is the only part of them we meet we’re likely to get a rough time, and to end up making ‘no contact’. But when you develop a strong divining sense for the child behind that armour, and you make your dealings and negotiations only with that child, you find that everybody becomes, in a way, like your own child.

It’s an intangible thing.

But they too sense when that is what you are appealing to, and they respond with an impulse of real life, you get a little flash of the essential person, which is the child. Usually, that child is a wretchedly isolated undeveloped little being. It’s been protected by the efficient armour, it’s never participated in life, it’s never been exposed to living and to managing the person’s affairs, it’s never been given responsibility for taking the brunt. And it’s never properly lived. That’s how it is in almost everybody.

And that little creature is sitting there, behind the armour, peering through the slits.

And in its own self, it is still unprotected, incapable, inexperienced. Every single person is vulnerable to unexpected defeat in this inmost emotional self. At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality, the one that can’t understand why it was born and that knows it will have to die, in no matter how crowded a place, quite on its own. That’s the carrier of all the living qualities. It’s the centre of all the possible magic and revelation. What doesn’t come out of that creature isn’t worth having, or it’s worth having only as a tool—for that creature to use and turn to account and make meaningful. So there it is…

The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated.

And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all. 

It was a saying about noble figures in old Irish poems—he would give his hawk to any man that asked for it, yet he loved his hawk better than men nowadays love their bride of tomorrow. He would mourn a dog with more grief than men nowadays mourn their fathers.

And that’s how we measure out our real respect for people—by the degree of feeling they can register, the voltage of life they can carry and tolerate—and enjoy. End of sermon. As Buddha says: live like a mighty river. And as the old Greeks said: live as though all your ancestors were living again through you.”

– Ted Hughes (in a letter to his 24 year old son.

Calling Bullshit on Bukowski

Is it just me, or does the poem I linked below do the opposite of debunking the “Tortured Genius” myth of creativity?

I actually read Bukowski’s poem as thinly disguised bullshit, hidden within crumbling veneer of truth. Yes, you should feel compelled to write in order to be a writer. Yes, you should enjoy the process most of the time.

However, writing is hard. Writing is rewriting and furthermore, the best and the greatest of writers have sat at a computer/typewriter  day after unproductive day. Even, sometimes, month after unproductive month.

To imply that  writing is only joyous, spontaneous bursts of freed creative genius is to impede all that creativity is and idealizes the process. This also encourages a fatalistic approach to creativity where one is either meant to write or meant to do something else. I buck against this idea — it requires a blind faith in Fate and total absence of personal responsibility to assume one is destined to be one thing or the other. Hogwash.

We make our own destiny, with the support of our few champions (loved ones).

In my humble opinion, although Bukowski condemns pretense and “self-love”, his very assumption that he (by virtue of his gift or genius?) knows what makes a “dull and boring” author and that he believes “unless being still would drive you to madness or suicide or murder” is the only proper impetus for a writer, reveals and slices open his own tendency to pretension and self-love (Bukowski).

This pretentious and commonly accepted concept of so-called “true inspiration” is the sole reason so many of us doubt our own creativity.

Never doubt the hard and sometimes grinding work artists put into their work. If we were a fly on the wall of a writer’s cottage or an artist’s studio, I imagine we’d all be a bit relieved to see our greatest influences or peers struggle with creation.

An exceedingly small minority of artistic types find the process “bursting out of you in spite of everything” (Bukowski). These are the lucky ones — and there are lucky ones in every aspect of life, not just the creative types.

I am here to maintain order and to encourage those who don’t have the advantage of buoying arrogance like Charles Bukowski. If you doubt yourself — that is okay. Do not feel you are alone. Do not give up — unless you hate what you do. There is no getting past that. But if you find creation hard, that does not mean you aren’t capable of excellence.

As a good friend of mine says, “Anything worthwhile is worth being tortured over. Remember the phrase “if it feels good, do it?” Well, if it feels bad, but you are driven, go ahead… For some, the reward is in the doing, for others in the finished product.”

So, Mr. Bukowski, I say it again, “You speak pretty good bullshit, good sir.”

I’ve recopied the poem in full, but the website is by Maria Popova is excellent, so you should visit it anyway.

“So, You Want to be a Writer: Bukowski Debunks the “Tortured Genius” Myth of Creativity”

so you want to be a writer

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
typewriter
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
fame,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.
if you’re trying to write like somebody
else,
forget about it.

if you have to wait for it to roar out of
you,
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.

if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you’re not ready.

don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
love.
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
sleep
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.

– Bukowski


Gone to Michigan In My Mind.

I have made this letter longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter. – Blaise Pascal

That quote is just a fair warning regarding the length of today’s post. Can’t say I didn’t warn you — I evidently have things to say.

This time of year, I always think of Michigan. Even though I love being a Texan, the Michigan experience is like nothing else in this world.

I miss it.

Marquette, MI

Two sets of my grandparents lived in Michigan. On group in Marquette, Michigan, the other in Traverse City.

Marquette is a gorgeous city in the Upper Peninsula, rich in history, outstanding natural beauty and charm. Traverse City is in the lower peninsula but is still abundant with pristine small towns and a rolling, pine-covered countryside.

My family settled in Texas when I was a young’un and I’ve considered myself a Texan for over 20 years now. However, throughout my young life, we often made the trek once, maybe even twice a year to Michigan to visit family. Some of my absolute favorite memories happened under the sheltering pines and star-studded midnight of or the cloud-dotted ice-blue of the Michigan sky.

Just a few feet behind my grandparent’s house in Marquette was a large, reedy, lily infested body of water. During the summer months, we took a little metal dinghy out and fished on that bayou.

Photo credit: ellenm1 / Foter / CC BY

(Despite their northern affiliation, the entire family called the big pond a “bayou“. I never knew why, but now I know the French-Canadian influence made the parallel between the Cajun swamp country of Louisiana and the frigid fishing holes of Upper Michigan possible.)

During one such holiday season visit, my baby brother and I decided to “go exploring”.

This basically entailed donning multiple layers of clothing and a tightly cinched snowsuit, then wandering about the forest surrounding my grandparent’s cozy two-story home.

Underneath that two-story home was my favorite place — the den.

We didn’t have dens in Texas. I obsessed over that room. When I was alone in there, it felt like my own little secret. At the top, small slats of windows looked out to a sidewalk where we could watch a visitor’s feet make their way to the front door. I liked to guess which person it might be and then run upstairs to find out if I was right.

To pass the time, we would often watch old westerns and war documentaries with Grandpa in the den. I did not appreciate good Westerns or WWII documentaries back then, so I was often torn. Stay in the den that I love — while trying not to die of boredom — or go upstairs and play cards on the back porch with my parents?

The back porch or kitchen usually won. I’d sit with a blanket and read, lulled into a peaceful stupor by the warmth of my hot cocoa and the repetitive chimes from the gorgeous old grandfather clock that stood in a place of honor in the foyer.

Or, I could always watch Michigan’s winter wildlife frolic in the small clearing beside the porch.

Photo credit: BellaLago / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

But, going back to exploring…

It was deep into winter. Snow coated the ground and layered thick green branches with glittering white powder.

To my inexperienced Texas eyes, the world looked like a Christmas scene in a snow globe. The sun shone brightly from a great distance, not even warming the frosted tip of my nose or the dark strands of my hair escaping from my hood.

Giant icicles, thicker than my admittedly skinny arm, glistened with a bluish glow off every overhang and outdoor fixture. My brother and I stopped by a small shed to knock some off and then we each kept one of our own to suck on, like a Popsicle.  A salt lick in the open yard drew deer after deer out of the forest. By the bird-feeder, daring cardinals splashed vibrant red streaks against the ash and charcoal color of naked birch trees.

A comfortable quiet settled around us as we crunched and stumbled our way over drifts of snow and pockets of ice. Sometimes, one of us would get caught up in a particularly deep drift and we’d have to help pull the other one out. It didn’t slow us down — we were on a mission to chart uncharted territory. To go boldly where we had never gone before!…or something like that.

It wasn’t long before we found a large cabin, made with sturdy logs and nestled deep in the embrace of a bristling thicket of pine. Something furry and white, startled by our presence, made a mad dash for cover.

Looking up, the long pointed tips of the pines stood tall, scratching insistently at the sky. The temperature grew cold as we stepped off the trail into freezing dark shadows and peered through our mittens into the cabin.

Photo credit: randihausken / Foter / CC BY-NC

We could see rustic furniture made from heavily polished wood. Everything was covered in handmade quilts, frozen in time. Just inside the door, a shiny metal ax leaned against the wall. Behind us, a sturdy tree stump bore the marks of repeated ax strikes and chips of broken firewood lay scattered around it. It all looked like something out of a fairy-tale. I was waiting for the hunched figure of a green, wart-faced woman to appear and slyly offer us an apple. My sports-oriented, fact based brother didn’t share my penchant for romantic ideas, but he was as riveted as I by the mystery shrouding the whimsical cabin.

As we moved on, we stopped by a strange marker outside the cabin. It was a large grey stone tablet in the traditional curved shape of a tombstone with an icy stone bench built-in. Etched deep into the surface of the tablet was the image of a cloth-covered woman cradling a tiny, squalling baby.

Not being familiar with Catholicism, my brother and I found seeing Mary and Jesus without the entire manger a little confusing, but not too strange. The shrine, as we learned later, actually marked the well-known Nun’s Cottage that owned a few acres of woods nearby our grandparents. (We learned that story later on, after relaying our findings to our parents.)

At the time, we shelved the mystery and went home, determined to pull our parents out into the glorious cold with us.

Photo credit: DTWpuck / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Eventually, all four of us trudged through the heavy snow, making our way toward the bayou and eventually, the best part, — Lake Superior.

Our entourage stopped when we reached the edge of the bayou. This was the area where we usually docked the tiny metal rowboat our family used to fish for perch and bass during the warmer months. But our grandparents’ pier had vanished, only a few wooden post tips peeking out of the snow marked its existence.

After ensuring that the bayou was frozen over completely, we marched our way across. I marveled the entire way, in love with the idea that we were walking over something I normally boated or swam in. This was a truly novel concept for me.

As we plodded on, stamping long footprints onto the blank canvas of snow, our noses and cheeks burned from the exposure to the cold, standing out like red fire against the paleness of our faces. Grinning ear to ear, we occasionally stopped to throw a snowball or make “the best snow angel” yet.

I was blissfully happy and totally living in the present. Not a worry or petulant thought crossed my mind.

Suddenly, there it was. We could hear it — Lake Superior!

Sand dunes, intermingling with patches of snow, blocked our way. Running up the dunes, my brother and I raced to see who could reach the shoreline first. Abruptly, we came to a halt. There, at the water’s edge, were storm-tossed waves, twice as tall as I and sitting at a complete standstill.

Far away, the giantess that is Lake Superior roared and gushed with oceanic sound — but the gentle rush and crash of waves hitting landfall was strangely absent.

It took a minute to sink in.

We were looking at waves, frozen midair and then continually growing in size as wave after wave left ice instead of wetness in its wake. They reached up, crashed into and lifted over one another on mute, paused forever in a beautiful display of power. Our parents expressed astonishment — apparently they’d never seen this phenomenon before either.

I almost died from an overload of happiness because, at that second, the skies clouded up and tiny pieces of snow fell silently all around us. We begged to sit on the waves, but no, they said we couldn’t risk going out that far on unsteady lake ice. So, we compromised.

We walked out to the edge, to the smallest, closest “waves” and we touched them.

This memory stands out in my mind, like all my memories from trips up North do.  It is a moment of pure joy that I can occasionally tap into when life is rough or the sun is trying to melt the skin off my face during the vicious heat wave we Texans call summer.

And as we Texans continue to lose any semblance of a real fall or spring, I wonder for the thousandth time — why don’t I just move to Michigan?…

Photo #2 — Photo credit: ellenm1 / Foter / CC BY

Photo #3 — Photo credit: BellaLago / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Photo #4 — Photo credit: randihausken / Foter / CC BY-NC

Photo #5 — Photo credit: DTWpuck / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND