Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Friday: big ideas to ponder and discuss

April 9, 2021 @ 8:12 am | Filed under: ,

jellybeans, easter eggs, and a blooming cactus

Perhaps the easiest piece of my personal Rule to fulfill. I live in a house full of talkers, analyzers, discussers, ponderers. Online and and in the world, I gravitate toward friends of similar bent. I spend more time than I should following rabbit trails of research. (It feels almost heretical to say that!)

I should say: discussion is easy to come by. It’s the pondering piece that needs protection, because that takes time, silence, and closed tabs. It’s far too easy to gather stores of information, and then whisk on to a new topic of interest without taking time to sit with the accumulated horde of ideas.

Sensing this, I made a shift in my morning routine last month. Instead of struggling through (during the first year of the pandemic it had become a struggle) my longstanding pattern of writing almost immediately after waking, I decided to give myself the first hour—or however many minutes there are between waking and 7:30 (sometimes more than an hour, sometimes less)—for study.

Typing that, I get the same thrill of relief I felt upon making that decision. Time to read? To make notes in margins? To sit with an idea—a single thought—in a quiet room, with a notebook and a good pen? To breathe in (read, think) before I breathe out (write, speak)?

I made myself a little syllabus of sorts: a stack of books I knew would nourish, not derail, deep thought.

World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen—an absolute gem of a book. When I read a few pages (I’ve been reading it slowly for probably a year), I often get a flash of the scene in Heidi, a book I read over and over as a child, when her aunt is taking her up the mountain to the Alm-Uncle for the first time, and Heidi, delighting in the fresh, scented air, keeps shedding layers of clothes as she goes. Coat, scarf, heavy woolen dress, stockings all strewn among the wildflowers. By the time they reach the grandfather’s hut, she’s down to her white cotton shift. That’s me at the top of each chapter.

The Muses Among Us by Kim Stafford. A book I inhaled last year and have returned to this year at a more contemplative pace. Keeping its essays company, a volume of Stafford’s poems called Wild Honey, Tough Salt. The essay I love best is the one in which Stafford maps out his process for collecting fragments of images and overheard conversation, storing them in pocket-sized notebooks made by folding a few sheets of paper, and later returning to the notebooks to harvest ideas for poems and essays. “When I write,” he says, I am secretary to a wisdom the world has made available to me.” There’s an idea to sit with for a while.

In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden. I love Godden’s writing, especially The Kitchen Madonna, but I’ve never made it all the way through this novel of hers. It nudged me as I passed by its longtime home on a bedroom bookshelf. I know it’s many people’s favorite of her novels.

Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield. She’s a poet I love, and whose mind I want to know better.

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay. A joyful reread of this glorious collection of poems. Ross Gay has become one of my favorite writers; his Book of Delights is on its way to dog-eared Best-Loved Book status after less than a year in my hands.

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu. A novel I learned about through Natalie Goldberg, about an Ethiopian immigrant who runs a grocery store in Washington, D.C.

Just these few. It was painfully hard for me to not load up the list, but slow reading and thinking is the point. There are other books on my Kindle, not to mention a new stack of future Dart titles waiting for me!, but the books in this small collection are the thought-stirrers I mean to spend these early mornings of spring with.

Reading, of course, is a way to collect and absorb ideas; to fully ponder them I must write. I hardly ever know what I think until I write it down. At 7:30am, birds chirp on my phone. I eat one square of mint chocolate (a ritual or habit to signal time to write), open my notebook or Scrivener, and let my fingers begin to think.

What is this about?

• encounters with beauty
• encounters with living books
• meaningful work;
• imaginative play;
• big ideas to ponder and discuss;
• white space;
• connection.

This post contains Bookshop.org and Amazon affiliate links.

Wednesday: imaginative play

April 8, 2021 @ 9:27 am | Filed under: ,

When I think of this category, I think of my kids in the backyard in San Diego, deeply immersed in the Warriors-inspired make-believe games that occupied so many hours when they were little. Or the long stretches of Sculpey play: elaborate scenes crafted and acted out. Epic adventures spanning hours and days. The Thomas the Tank engine set, the Playmobil stories, the blanket forts.

For myself, this category is a little harder to define. Rose and Beanie used to walk in circles (literally walk in circles!) on our back patio, making up stories for themselves. All the action was happening inside their heads. Here in the second year of the pandemic, my head is full, full, full—full of inputs, full of tasks to be done. I notice in myself a pattern of clearing a little time for my grownup version of play—or for white space, which has some crossover with this category, since it’s the soil from which imagination and creativity grow—and then immediately filling the space with yet another form of input, sometimes nourishing, sometimes fluff. An audiobook, a podcast, a show on Netflix, a screen game.

Funny as it sounds, holding space for imaginative play in my life takes more effort than almost anything else on my list of essential activities!

Where I find it is at my art table, or within the borders of an embroidery hoop. On the blank page of a notebook: a jumble of words arranging themselves into phrases, into poems.

It’s possible I’m not a minimalist

I know exactly where to find the doorway to imaginative play, but I have to make myself walk through it. To mess around with paint, not listening to a book or podcast. To doodle in my sketchbook while my mind roams. Not tuned into other voices. I find this challenging; I’m so accustomed to making the most of my minutes! Not enough time to read and exercise and make art and learn new things—better bundle them together.

Bundling is wonderful—in moderation! If every morsel of my sketchbook time, treadmill time, gardening time, has a soundtrack, I’ll never hear my own self. Even the time I spend in my poetry notebook several mornings a week can become a clamor of other voices. I’m impatient with the seed-time of my own thoughts.

Where I find the easiest ground for imaginative play is with embroidery. I think that’s because it combines a satisfying and meditative activity (stitching) with invention and beauty. You could say the same thing about painting, drawing, knitting, woodworking, but for me, a #7 Tulip needle is the key to the realm of imagination. Perhaps that’s because even after years of daily drawing and online art classes, I remain unsatisfied with my ability. When I picked up the embroidery habit, I gained skill with gratifying speed. And I found a blank round of fabric to be fertile ground for original thought and design, much more so than on a sheet of watercolor paper. Curious, no? I seldom like the original art I make on paper. (I say original to distinguish it from online course assignments, where I’m following steps and often do enjoy both the process and final outcome).

I hadn’t been stitching for long—using patterns purchased from my favorite Instagram designers—when I felt the itch to create my own designs. Ideas flooded in—but I could see that my they outstripped my ability. So I ignored the voice that kept urging me to be original. I gave myself time to practice and learn. I gave myself scraps of fabric to experiment on, reckoning that they were the embroidery equivalent of an artist’s sketchbook.

And eventually, after a long time, a project began to shape itself in my mind. It’s playful and inventive and combines elements and subject matter I care about intensely.

My challenge is holding space for it. I have an hour set aside after I tuck Huck into bed, but by that time of day I’m often too fried. This week I only picked up that hoop a couple of times.

I’m still stitching, though. I’ve found what works best for me is to have three projects at the ready, at all times: one for study (learning new stitches or techniques); one for thinking (a simple design purchased from creators like Cozyblue or Dropcloth, where the stitching is satisfying and meditative, and I don’t have to make decisions as I go); and the hoop containing my own project-in-progress.

The second type of hoop—I’ve written about this before—is an essential part of my writing practice. When I hit a point in a piece of writing where I need to stop and think, picking up that hoop quashes the urge to pop open a social media tab and “just” take a peek. Those peeks (which are never just a peek, are they) are the fastest route to utter derailment on a writing project. So I keep my “thinking hoop” handy and pick it up whenever I’m tempted to open a tab.

(I love the Momentum Dash browser extension for Chrome—it allows you to set a default New Tab that opens to a beautiful nature photo, different every day, with a blank for you to enter that day’s focus activity. Sometimes while I’m writing, I write PICK UP YOUR HOOP in that blank, so that if I do succumb to new-tab temptation, I’m smacked with a reminder before I can load another site. Other times, I write the day’s Highlight (a task or activity that I absolutely must attend to that day) or whatever piece of writing I’m working on at the moment in that blank. This has the same effect of redirecting my attention to my work. Probably one of my best workflow hacks! I also use Momentum’s built-in Pomodoro timer quite a lot.)

My time’s just about up for this morning, so I’ll close with a quick look back at the week’s imaginative play. I started, but didn’t finish, this fantastic Peggy Dean tutorial (free!) on how to draw canyons in Procreate. Except I just grabbed my notebook, not the iPad. I’d like to spend more time with that today. And Rilla and I are working on a pretty exciting art project together on Saturday nights. She’s done almost all the work so far, but last week we got to the painting stage and spent a happy hour testing our acrylic paints on a black canvas to see which colors show up best from a distance. I’m looking forward to putting in some more time on that project this weekend.

And writing this post reminds me to start my afternoon work session by threading some needles. I’m a big believer in always leaving thread in the needle—both literally for embroidery and figuratively for my writing (Hemingway’s trick). Never stop at the end of a scene! Break off mid-scene, mid-paragraph, even mid-sentence if you can. It’s much easier to pick the work back up next time.

What is this about?

• encounters with beauty
• encounters with living books
• meaningful work;
• imaginative play;
• big ideas to ponder and discuss;
• white space;
• connection.

If this post ends abruptly, here’s why

Tuesday: encounters with books (and blogs)

April 6, 2021 @ 8:37 am | Filed under: , , ,

August 2008

I’m chuckling over the word “encounters.” In my Rule of Six (or Seven) list, that word flows naturally: encounters with beauty, encounters with living books, encounters with ideas to ponder and discuss…

But when I lift the phrase out of the list, it becomes comical. My entire day is a series of “encounters” with books. I might as well say I’ve had an encounter with air, or that my feet have encountered floors.

Actually, come to think of it, my feet have had plenty of encounters with books, too, because there is never not a stack somewhere in kicking distance. Right now: beside my bed, next to where I leave my slippers at night—i.e., exactly where I groggily aim my toes in the pre-dawn darkness every single morning. You’d think I’d learn after the sixth or seventh stubbed toe, wouldn’t you?

Narrator: she wouldn’t.

But okay. With what books have I had a particularly close or meaningful encounter in the past week?

When You Reach Me

Well, I finished our readaloud of The Wind in the Door, the sequel to A Wrinkle in Time. And for once I wasn’t tormented with indecision over what the next readaloud should be: I had Rebecca Stead’s lovely When You Reach Me waiting in the wings. It’s a natural next book after Wrinkle. (But we’re studying the parts of a cell in our biology lessons, so OF COURSE I had to read Wind in the Door first. After that book, you’ll never forget what mitochondria do.)

When You Reach Me is, as I expected, going over like gangbusters. Scott listens along with us, and since it’s set in 1979, with a narrator only a year or two older than Scott and I were that year, it feels like home. And Miranda’s Manhattan neighborhood is familiar to us from the years we lived in Queens and worked in Manhattan.

For Huck and Rilla, this setting and time period are new territory, an interesting backdrop to an incredibly gripping story. Miranda’s favorite book is A Wrinkle in Time, and she quotes from it or narrates bits and scenes quite often. I love love love internal references like this: they’re the best kind of organic connection, and our brains loooove connections. I’m always talking about giving kids hooks to hang other knowledge on, like the way the Horrible Histories English monarchs song is a useful set of hooks for us to sort other historical events by. “That happened around the time of King John,” I might say, and the kids burst out with: “Poor King John, what a disaster, rule restrained by Magna Carta.”

Anyway, we’re about a third of the way through When You Reach Me and I’m beside myself with happy anticipation of what’s in store for my listeners.

Tiny Habits

I’ve also been spending a lot of time with B.J. Fogg’s Tiny Habits, which I devoured when it first came out and have been enjoying revisiting more slowly. One of my 2020 achievements was becoming a certified habit coach via Coach.me, because—as you know if you read Bonny Glen back in the beginning—habits have been a subject of particular interest to me since the day I first picked up a Charlotte Mason book in the mid-’90s.

Tiny Habits adds new layers to the subject through Stanford professor B.J. Fogg’s research on human behavior and what he calls “behavior design.” His premise is that you can coach yourself into any behavior you wish if you approach it incrementally, taking advantage of certain hardwired aspects of human behavior—and that willpower has nothing to do with this process. He explores prompts, ability, and motivation—motivation being the least powerful factor of the three, when it comes to creating a habit.

James Clear’s Atomic Habits and Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before also unpack this topic and explore related strategies. Gretchen incorporates her unique and highly useful theory about the Four Tendencies into her discussion of habit formation. I loved her book, because she zeroes in on the importance of understanding yourself (your tendency) in establishing the right bite-sized habit and the best-for-you prompt.

A very long postscript

This post could go on and on, but I’m trying a new practice. I have hundreds of unfinished draft posts sitting in my queue—because life is so full that if I don’t publish them right away, it’s hard to come back later. The momentum is gone. The energy I have for persistent, gradual progress on a piece of writing goes entirely to my books and to my working creating Brave Writer literature guides. But whenever I let my blog slip, I start to feel twitchy. It’s an important chronicle for my family and an important vehicle for my own learning and exploration. I need to write in order to know what I think. And I need to share that writing—narration is such a crucial piece of learning and critical thinking!

So what I’ve decided to try—and I’ll be evaluating the success of this plan in real-time, as I go, probably out loud—is writing for a set amount of time (most days, 45 minutes) and then hitting publish even if I had more thoughts to think, or (as with this post) more books to dish about. I’ve rearranged the day to allow this pocket of time (swapping it out with my Morning Pages practice, because the truth is, Morning Pages bore me silly after about the third day) most mornings. And when the timer goes off, I’ll give it a quick scan for typos and then smash the publish button, even if I had more to say.

I have plenty of outlets for more polished writing. Patreon, Medium, Darts, Arrows, my books. For the first ten years, blogging worked brilliantly for me as a catalyst for discovery and analysis. I resisted the shift toward professionalization of one’s blog and I bristled at the trend toward prioritizing the inclusion of beautiful photos, creating a magazine effect. (Do you know what I do for images here these days, most of the time? I click the “Add Media” button and type a word, loosely related to the content of the post, into the search bar. Then I pick one of the zillion photos I’ve shared here in the past. Thus the ancient snapshot at the top of this post.)

Because social media favors posts with a captivating and properly sized “featured photo,” I kept leaving drafts in the queue to await a moment when I could take or find the right picture. And of course you’re supposed to use keywords and subheads or your SEO plug-in yells at you. Mine loathes the length of my sentences and paragraphs.

And I find that I no longer care. I seldom bother to share links to Bonny Glen posts on Facebook or Twitter any more. I use subheads sparingly and mainly because I love that shade of blue.

This shade

Now, I realize I’ve gone and written a whole second post to explain why I’m publishing the first one practically mid-thought. Once again, I’m thinking out loud, firming up my vague notions by articulating them to you.

This practice—which, again, is an experiment I’m testing to see if it clicks for me—will mean more frequent, less polished posts. If you’re still here reading Bonny Glen after all these years, and through my long silences, I’m guessing you won’t mind. If you ever feel I’ve given short shrift to a topic and you’d like to hear more, please let me know! I’d be happy to tackle it the next time I set the timer.

P.S. No time today for adding book links! If you’d like to give me the affiliate credit, here are links to my Amazon & Bookshop.org portals.

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Books finished in the first quarter of 2021

March 31, 2021 @ 8:45 am | Filed under:

Scanning my list, I see some threads:

Books about creative practice

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
Keep It Moving: Lessons for the Rest of Your Life by Twyla Tharp
Wild Words by Nicole Gulotta
Why I Wake Early by Mary Oliver
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg
Do the Work by Steven Pressfield
The True Secret of Writing by Natalie Goldberg
Thunder and Lightning by Natalie Goldberg

Books about habits, project planning, balance

Start Finishing by Charlie Gilkey
Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky
Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin
Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin

Books for which I wrote Brave Writer Darts and Arrows

The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White
Wings of Fire: The Dragonet Prophecy by Tui T. Sutherland
Year of the Dog by Grace Lin
Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective by Donald J. Sobol
Mañanaland by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Books I read to my kids (and Scott, who listens in)

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L’Engle

Books of poems / books about poetry

Three Simple Lines: A Writer’s Pilgrimage into the Heart and Homeland of Haiku by Natalie Goldberg*
Familiars by Holly Wren Spaulding
Ikkyu: Crow With No Mouth translated by Stephen Berg

* I made a video about this lovely tome for the Book Club tier of my Patreon

And oddly, only one novel read to myself, purely for pleasure

The Kitchen Madonna by Rumer Godden, a treasured re-read—a short novel, it’s worth noting)

As always, I started many more books than I finished. Some of them will make their way onto my next-quarter list. I’ve been enjoying choosing a collection of essays and several books of poems to savor slowly through a season (or two). Right now this includes collections by the Scottish poet Thomas A. Clark and a leisurely meander through Christian McEwan’s World Enough and Time.

Writing booklists makes me want to drop everything and read. But reading something wonderful makes me want to drop everything and write. Writing compels further reading. Research generates new booklists. I have no complaints about this cycle. It’s as thrilling to me as the cycle of seasonal growth and dormancy. Speaking of which—it’s the season for gardening books!

Dreaming of greasy fries and fruity drinks

March 3, 2021 @ 10:13 am | Filed under:


I’ve been reading a lot of Natalie Goldberg in preparation for a workshop I’m taking this month. She always makes me wild to write, write, write—but reading her this time around, a year into pandemic hibernation, she’s also making ache for coffee shops and sleepy afternoon pubs. Walking down Fremont Street to the sports bar whose back room was all empty tables between three and six, passing the stone retaining wall with the succulents sprouting from every cranny, the yard with the hollyhocks towering over my head, the yard with the two small dogs who tore furiously around the corner of the house to proclaim their hatred and suspicion of all passersby, especially me. Except once when the growlier of the two wasn’t around, and the other dog trotted right up to the fence, wagging, interested, asking for my phone number. The next time I passed, the angry dog was back, insisting on warfare, and our promising friendship was shattered.

Tulip trees and daffodils on the median strip. A pair of shoes neatly lined up next to a port-a-potty in front of a house undergoing renovations. For weeks, those shoes stayed exactly put. Sneakers, once white, now gray, but no scuffs, not much sign of wear. The story behind those shoes—their precise placement beside the blue metal outhouse, not a millimeter out of line with each other—tormented and entertained me during weeks of walks while I was revising Nerviest Girl.

My revision was due in April (2019), and as the weather got lovelier and the spring more exuberant, I found I wanted to walk farther, so I would keep going, past the barber shop, the tiny art gallery, the quiet pub; past Goodwill truck in the corner lot next to the cemetery where coyotes are rumored to make their home; past the family-owned restaurant that got ruined by being declared the home of the best hamburger in America; past the donut shop whose line always stretched out the door and down the block, even in rain. Past pizza parlors and yoga studios and bakeries to—of all places, on that stretch of quirky indie shops—Starbucks. Such a cliché! But a place with good light, where I could park for hours without feeling guilty. I’m not a coffee drinker and I only like good Southern sweet iced tea, but the berry Refreshers are okay, and sometimes I treated myself to an almond croissant. I got buckets of work done at the window tables in that establishment, that spring, summer, fall. And the winter before, and the whole year before that, I spent so many afternoons writing in the dim back room of the sports bar that for a while Huck actually thought I had a job there.

If I got to Starbucks by three, I had a solid hour of quiet writing time before the kids streamed in from the middle-school down the street. Then I would lose long stretches to eavesdropping. By 4:30 the students had drifted out, and the after-yoga crowd would arrive, and parents with small kids on the way to activities, and a few college students meeting their tutors. I usually found another burst of focus and wrote until just shy of six. Sometimes I walked home up Klickitat Street, a very slight detour with hundreds more flowers, and other times, especially in rain, I’d stick to Fremont, and Scott would drive to pick me up, usually meeting me on the long cemetery block.

After Daylight Savings Time ended in the fall of 2019, I stopped making the walk—it got dark so early and my studio was cozier. Then my surgery in February, and I wasn’t going anywhere for a while—dozens of stitches and two black eyes. And then, of course, March. I love my studio and spend a silly amount of hours in here—work, play, rest, even doing ballet lessons on Youtube, using my bookcase as a barre. But oh, how I look forward to venturing out to coffee shops again!

Does the little white dog still loathe the universe? Will the brown dog remember he wanted to be friends?

Are the white sneakers still lined up side by side?

Meanderings

February 3, 2021 @ 10:12 am | Filed under:
Me in my blue coat crouching in a field of crocuses, grinning at my husband who is taking a picture of me taking a picture

My first encounter with our local crocus patch, Feb 4, 2018

In the neighborhood:

• The snowdrops and crocuses are blooming, and the daffodil stems are getting tall. It’s time to visit the nearby park that becomes a field of purple and yellow crocuses this time of year. Most park-goers here seem to be good with masks, so hopefully we can safely meander along the paths.

In my reading life:

• Our Wrinkle in Time readaloud is getting to the exciting part. Yesterday, Huck and Rilla (along with Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace) got their first glimpse of the shadow blotting out a swath of stars. Things are about to get intense!

• Library books keep expiring on my Kindle before I get through them. This is poor patronage on my part! (Given the hefty prices libraries pay for e-books, which have a finite number of check-outs and then must be repurchased.) The blessing of rabbit-trailing is also its curse: I encounter more books than I can possibly read, ever, ever. Currently in progress: Good Habits, Bad Habits by Wendy Wood; Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari; The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner; The Cave Painters by Gregory Curtis; and (oh the irony) Start Finishing by Charlie Gilkey. Oh, and Grace Lin’s The Year of the Dog, for which I’ll be writing a Brave Writer Dart this month.

• Oh but of course there are hard copies in my hands too! My friend Michelle reminded me of Christian McEwen’s World Enough and Time, which I bought a year ago but hadn’t begun. If you’re a Patreon subscriber, you know I have now begun reading it at last, and I’m adoring it. Am also midway through a reread of Liz Gilbert’s Big Magic.

• The poets I find myself reaching for most often at present are Ross Gay, Ilya Kaminsky, Louise Gluck, Basho, Olav K. Hauge, and Julia Hartwig—and the title of her book gave me a good chuckle just now, considering what I was just saying about my library books: In Praise of the Unfinished.

In fine whack

January 27, 2021 @ 9:20 am | Filed under: ,

When you mention A Ring of Endless Light in a post, naturally you check for dolphins among your photos. Here’s Beanie making a friend in 2008.

My morning routine has been a bit out of whack lately, and I’m trying to get it back in what an etymological site tells me is the opposite: in fine whack, meaning the same as in fine fettle.

There seems to have been a phrase in fine whack during that century, meaning that something was in good condition or excellent fettle. (It appears in a letter by John Hay, President Lincoln’s amanuensis, dated August 1863, which describes the President: “The Tycoon is in fine whack. I have rarely seen him more serene and busy. He is managing this war, the draft, foreign relations, and planning a reconstruction of the Union, all at once”.) It doesn’t often turn up in writing, though, so there’s some doubt how widespread it was.

And now I’m trying to remember which Madeleine L’Engle book discusses the word amanuensis—I’m hearing a small boy saying it; he’s proud to be someone’s amanuensis, a literary or artistic assistant; which means it’s either Rob Austin or Charles Wallace Murry. Hmm, no, neither seems right, although in my memory there was an element of precociousness in the character’s use of the word. I reread A Ring of Endless Light for the umpteenth time last year—always my favorite L’Engle novel—so that’s probably where I’m recalling it from. But would it have been Rob? Was Adam Jed’s amanuensis? Sort of?

Well, this digression is indicative of the way I sometimes allow my morning routine to skitter off course. I have a no-screens rule for the first hour minutes, and then I allow myself to open the laptop for an hour or more of writing time. I’ve been trying to keep to a strict one-tab-at-a-time habit, but a rabbit trail like the one above has generated three extra tabs and a jaunt to the library website to see if A Ring of Endless Light was available in ebook. It was! But my search for amanuensis in the text revealed zero hits. Hmm. My brain will keep poking this question until I find the answer. Watch me: I’ll wind up rereading all of L’Engle to find the quote!

Booknotes: The War of Art

January 2, 2021 @ 12:53 pm | Filed under: , , ,

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

A reread to help me jump into a new year and a new project. Steven Pressfield’s take on Resistance is some of the most useful teaching about writing I’ve ever encountered.

“I wake up with a gnawing sensation of dissatisfaction. Already I feel fear. Already the loved ones around me are starting to fade. I interact. I’m present. But I’m not.

I’m not thinking about the work. I’ve already consigned that to the Muse. What I am aware of is Resistance. I feel it in my guts. I afford it the utmost respect, because I know it can defeat me on any given day as easily as the need for a drink can overcome an alcoholic.

I go through the chores, the correspondence, the obligations of daily life. Again I’m there but not really. The clock is running in my head; I know I can indulge in daily crap for a little while, but I must cut it off when the bell rings.”

Affiliate links: Bookshop.org (supports independent bookstores) • Kindle

“…fields everywhere invite you into them.”

December 29, 2020 @ 8:59 pm | Filed under: ,

I set this afternoon aside for reading, a whole glorious seven hours of it, and reading always makes me want to write. So here I am, blowing the dust off this dear old blog. I neglect it for weeks at a stretch because I spend so much of my day writing other things, and when I open this tab I often feel drained or blank.

There’s also an aspect of blogging that feels like homework—combing my photos for the right image, choosing tags, looking up books on Bookshop.org or Amazon to add links, the kind that send a few cents my way, defraying the costs of maintaining the site. Chores I find tedious and sometimes embarrassing. The book links aren’t as necessary as I tell myself they are—you can Google anything that catches your interest—but money’s as tight for us as it is for most everyone else right now, and omitting the links always feels, in the end, a bit irresponsible. Even now I’m staring at the word Bookshop up there, feeling internal pressure to stick my affiliate link in place like a sensible blogger.

But this is my magic week, when I don’t have to be sensible. I try to reserve the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day for combing through the year’s notebooks, revisiting, panning for gold. It’s mostly iron pyrite so far, but that’s often useful in its own way. I gave yesterday afternoon to a single notebook, distilled now to a page of notes and asterisks. Today, as I mentioned, was hours and hours of reading other people’s work. Twyla Tharp’s Keep It Moving, a packet of poems, a Mary Oliver essay that cut me to the quick. Lordy, I love her. Both of them. Twyla shakes you by the shoulders and Mary raises her eyebrows at you until you cry uncle. You’re right, I’m constantly shouting back, of course you’re right! I’ll go for a walk! I’ll try to enter the long black branches of other lives! More birds, less Twitter! 

The line that made me gasp tonight—it was like an adrenaline syringe to the heart—was in her essay “Of Power and Time”:

In creative work—creative work of all kinds—those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward.

She writes about her three selves—the child she was, who exists now in remembered experiences; the “attentive, social” self who makes dentist appointments and remembers to buy mustard; and a third self, “occasional in some of us, a tyrant in others.” A self “out of love with time,” a self that “has a hunger for eternity.”

The shock of recognition was severe. These past several months, my capable, responsible second self has—out of necessity—run the show. I’m a bit sick of her, to be honest. My third self, more tired than tyrannical in this bizarrest of years, is stretching her limbs and wondering when the prime minister took over running the kingdom.

I’m being a little unfair to the second self: someone had to get the FAFSA done and the health insurance renewed, and it certainly wasn’t going to be the poet queen. Mary Oliver’s delight was in lying down in the grass, as though she were the grass. My delight has been in showing the grass to my children and teaching them how to find its secret name. We walk in different fields, is what I’m saying.

But. Sometimes the second self tumbles or leaps into the whirlpool of distractions—most of them connected to the internet—and promises the third self her turn will come “as soon as.” As soon as the election is over, as soon as this assignment is turned in, as soon as the bathroom floor is mopped. The as-soon-as train has an infinite number of cars.

Twyla Tharp would say: you must make a pledge to the third self. Promise her time on the throne. Mary Oliver says to put your foot into the door of the grass and to sit down like a weed among weeds and rustle in the wind! 

Every day, I get up before dark to give the third self a little time in the chair. I’m dedicated to this practice and it bears fruit on a long, slow timeline. But here at the end of an infuriating, stupefying year, those morning hours already feel like a distant memory by the time breakfast is over. The poet queen refuses to compete with Twitter. She won’t come back until all the tabs are closed. That’s Mary Oliver’s point.

“It is six a.m.,” she writes, “and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be.”

This last week of the year, I invite the third self to occupy the chair not just in the dawn hours but for a string of entire days. The second self can go jump in a lake, as far as I’m concerned. Yes, jump! urges Twyla—there is literally a chapter about jumping in Keep It Moving, in which she recommends four different kinds of leaps you ought to fold into your day. Beside her, Mary is calling: Fall in, fall in!